W. Joseph Campbell

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews

In Cinematic treatments, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Mark Felt is a movie worse than its many negative reviews.

It’s a tedious biopic about Watergate’s most famous anonymous source that fails to offer anything close to a coherent interpretation of America’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

The subtitle asserts that Felt — celebrated as Bob Woodward‘s highly placed “Deep Throat” source during Watergate — was the “man who brought down the White House.” But that exceedingly dubious claim is not  much addressed — let alone supported — in this headache-inducing mess of a movie.

No one who sits through Mark Felt will come away with a cogent understanding about Watergate and what really brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

And that perhaps is its most acute failing.

The movie offers a badly mashed-up timeline of Watergate; suggests that the Nixon White House coverup of the scandal nearly succeeded when it was amateurish and wobbly, and provides no sense at all about the array of forces that closed in on Nixon. The movie is about a career G-man (played grimly by Liam Neeson) who leaked to the press, ostensibly to protect his beloved FBI from Nixon and his skulking, disreputable top aides.

Woodward’s character, played by Julian Morris, is amusingly callow and in a couple of brief appearances comes across as more stenographer than searching journalist. Mark Felt grants considerably more face time to Sandy Smith of Time magazine’s Washington bureau, a veteran journalist to whom Felt also leaked.

But as the credits roll, it’s not hard to think that director Peter Landesman missed an opportunity to shoot a far better movie about Felt.

Landesman’s portrayal notwithstanding, Felt was no heroic whistleblower. He was no noble character; the far better movie would have depicted Felt more accurately as a cunning G-man not above breaking the law.

The far better movie would have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt for a short time wielded at the FBI.

The far better movie would have been developed around Felt’s criminal misconduct as the agency’s acting associate director, authorizing illegal breakins — known as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of Weather Underground fugitives.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for illegal entries and searches in New York City and Union City, N.J. Indicted with him for conspiring to violate civil rights of American citizens were former FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray and Edward S. Miller, former head of the agency’s counterintelligence unit.

Felt and Miller were convicted, ordered to pay fines, but pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Charges against Gray were dropped.

Felt died in 2008, a few years after outing himself as Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source during Watergate.

The “black bag jobs” were conducted in late 1972 and early 1973, roughly the time Felt was speaking with Woodward of the Washington Post about Watergate. Felt and Miller later said the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

Landesman’s Felt doesn’t ignore the FBI’s illegal activities, but seems to excuse them because the Weather Underground’s bombings were increasingly worrisome. The radical group detonated timebombs in washrooms at the Capitol in March 1971, the Pentagon in May 1972, and State Department in January 1975.

A parallel track of the far better movie would have explored but censured the Weather Underground, a violent, far-left terrorist group led by the likes of Bernadine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers. They escaped  federal prosecution for their most serious crimes because crucial evidence against them had been gathered through illegal telephone surveillance.

Dohrn and Ayers became professors, he at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she at Northwestern University Law School. They were early supporters of Barack Obama as he began his climb from Chicago to the presidency. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from Ayers, calling him “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”

The far better movie also would have zeroed in on Felt’s efforts to undermine Gray during the so-called FBI war of succession following J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972.

By leaking to Woodward and Sandy Smith, Felt sought to discredit Gray and thus enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, an interpretation Max Holland persuasively presented in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

Felt lost out and retired in 1973, the year before Nixon resigned.

A far better movie could have been made. The material was there. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding and confusing cinematic treatment that’s been aptly rewarded since its release with modest box office receipts.

WJC

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