The best-known anonymous source of the Watergate scandal, a former senior FBI official code-named “Deep Throat,” would receive hero’s treatment in a planned biopic, the shooting for which reportedly is to begin in March.
The movie is to be called Felt, the name of the “Deep Throat” source, W. Mark Felt, who cut a checkered career in government service.
Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the agency’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.
Early this month, the Hollywood press was abuzz about the planned Felt biopic. The show business daily, Variety, said the film would be “a spy thriller” in which Felt wages an “isolated and dangerous struggle against the White House.” Shooting the film is to begin in March, Variety said, and Liam Neeson and Diane Lane may fill lead roles.
All of which prompts inevitable questions: Why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy? Even if the movie never makes it to production, why should Felt be considered a hero?
He was no noble figure. Felt was convicted in 1980 of felony charges related to the warrantless break-ins, known in the FBI as “black bag jobs,” and fined $5,000. He was not sentenced to prison for the crimes.
The year after his conviction, Felt was granted an unconditional pardon by President Ronald Reagan.
In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged on the witness stand having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”
Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller justified the warrantless entries on grounds of national security.
The prosecutor in the case, John W. Nields Jr., said at the trial that FBI agents who conducted the breakins Felt approved had entered residences in New York City and New Jersey, “dressed in old clothes or disguised as telephone repairmen,” according to a New York Times report about the trial.
The agents picked locks or paid cash to landlords to obtain keys, Nields said, and they “searched every room in the home, methodically looking through desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen. With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents.”
Nields said Reagan’s pardon of Felt and Miller came as a surprise. “Nobody spoke to me about it,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “I would warrant that whoever is responsible for the pardons did not read the record of the trial and did not know the facts of the case.”
Felt was hardly acting altruistically in passing Watergate-related information to Woodward; their periodic meetings included six in a parking garage in suburban Virginia. I argued in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that the contributions of Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal were modest at best and that their reporting in no way can be thought of as having forced President Richard Nixon to resign.
In leaking to Woodward, Felt sought to undercut the acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, and thereby enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, as Max Holland persuasively argued in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. The book makes clear Felt was motivated by ambition in the internal struggle at the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving director who died in May 1972.
Felt lost out, and retired in 1973.
Perhaps Felt the movie will collapse in its preliminary stages, which is the fate of many Hollywood projects. A biopic about Mark Felt is a bad idea in any case.
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