One of the potential upsides of our current political malaise is the revival of the conspiracy thriller: a particularly Seventies genre that taps into the not-unfounded fear that governments are up to no good and Big Brother is watching you. The most high-profile recent example was The Post, Steven Spielberg’s vivid retelling of the Pentagon Papers leak, which ended with a brief sequence showing the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel.
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The exposure of that scandal was, of course, the subject of 1976’s Oscar-winning All the President’s Men, which left unresolved the identity of Deep Throat – the anonymous source that helped journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Richard Nixon. Only in 2005 was this revealed to be Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI agent.
As the uninspired title suggests, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House offers a fairly conventional retread of this story, but now told from the inside rather than the outside (the scruffy newsrooms of All the President’s Men are replaced by the more salubrious surroundings of the FBI). Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) is that classic dramatic archetype: an establishment stooge (‘competent, reliable, loyal’, in the words of one colleague) who slowly turns against the system he’s previously defended by fair means or foul.
On the level of character, the film is very watchable. Much like Oscar Schindler (another real-life character played by Neeson), Mark Felt is an opaque and ambiguous figure. As someone who oversaw covert illegal operations, he’s clearly not afraid to carry out dirty work in defiance of the Constitution, and at first he seems more concerned with merely protecting the FBI from White House interference. Conversations with his wife Audrey (a criminally underused Diane Lane) also hint at resentment at being overlooked for the top job.
And yet his moral awakening is nicely played – a gradual realisation, like Schindler, that he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. There’s also an intriguing subplot involving Mark and Audrey’s daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), a teenage runaway who’s taken up with the very activists, hippies and protest movements that Mark dismisses as ‘punks’. His attempts to track her down – also using rather dodgy methods – feels like a shot at redemption, which parallels his growing dissatisfaction with the people running his country.
Despite this, Mark Felt never steps out of the shadow of its predecessors. It lacks the storytelling verve that Spielberg brought to The Post, and it never generates the excitement or tension of 2015’s Spotlight, a superb account of the Boston Globe’s exposure of the Catholic child sex scandal. Watergate will always be a fascinating story to those interested in the moral corruption of power, but a good documentary on the same subject would probably have made for more entertaining viewing.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is released in cinemas on 23 March.
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