Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Watergate, anyone?


Liam Neeson as "Deep Throat" Mark Felt in Peter Landesman's film. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
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Watergate was a long time ago. Dredging it up now in the hope of drawing a useful political parallel seems weird, since 1972 bears so little resemblance to 2017. Maybe it's the allure of a 25-year anniversary. Whatever. It's never too late to learn the wrong lessons from past mistakes, er, crimes. God knows USA needs to find some guidance somewhere. Liam Neeson gets a chance to strut his stunningly carved-in-stone profile with its daunting eye-socket-to-nose-bridge distance in a new narrow-focus biopic. "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House" opens Friday at AMC Metreon.

Watergate, for the hoi polloi who watched from the sidelines, was a harrowing but ultimately reassuring exercise in constitutional democracy. Impeachment was just the thing for that monster Nixon, an aberrant bad apple whose removal from office would restore virtue and vigilance to the land. Heroes of the story were Congress, whose proceedings were closely followed live on television, and the Press, who were instrumental in feeding the tyrant to the judicial system. Never in our wildest imaginings did it occur to us to thank the FBI. Fresh in his grave, J. Edgar Hoover was no one's idea of a counterculture hero.

Mark Felt was a company man, a loyal FBI soldier for 30 years, whom Fate chose to blow the whistle on Tricky Dick's criminal conspirators. Nicknamed "Deep Throat" by the dashing young scribes at The Washington Post, Felt uncharacteristically told tales to the press because the White House was encroaching on FBI turf. "Nobody stops an FBI investigation," intones Neeson in his raspy lilt, "not even the FBI." Like Congress and the Press, the FBI in the person of Felt was doing its duty to stop the cover-up by the Committee to Re-elect the President. The system worked, sort of. We were all safe in our beds.

Writer-director Peter Landesman has crafted an intense and airless drama of the behind-the-scenes machinations required to empty the White House of a passel of bad hombres. Never has the term "corridors of power" been so literally transferred to the screen, along with the elevators of power. The palette runs to granular (because shot on video) gray and blue-gray, complemented by occasional reminders of how bad men's taste in ties was. Life inside a bank vault or walk-in freezer couldn't be so cheerless, as Felt stoically outwits Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, and Mitchell. Too bad we don't see the villains long enough to be able to tell them apart.

 If you don't know Watergate going in, after watching a tall wrinkled man defeat the President's men by dint of superior back-stabbing, you'll walk out thanking the FBI for restoring democracy. That would be wrong. Felt is a member of the establishment, albeit a democrat. He has the usual wife of the 1970s career Washington bureaucrat: dutiful, beautiful, lonely, fragile. Audrey (Diane Ladd, doing what she does) appears far from the men-only corridors but speaks with their same logical economy. Daughter Joan is a caricature: a mindless runaway on a hippie commune who needs rescuing. We see but never really feel the Felts.

The failure to look deeply into Deep Throat's all-too-human contradictions robs the audience of an emotional experience and flattens the film into a series of listless surfaces. Neeson's epic hero never develops into a multi-faceted man but proceeds like a Golem bent on targeted destruction, much as he does in those reprehensibly self-righteous "Taken" melodramas, 1, 2 & 3. The film's obsessive focus on a singular, titanic do-gooder belies Landesman's otherwise cautious approach to the historical record. Watergate was a collaborative, non-partisan, cross-discipline effort. And Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wasn't a small, timid puppy.

The newspaper articles, the hearings, the cascading revelations of lies leading finally to Nixon's fall were more joy-filled than portrayed in this bleak little backstage battle. There was a sense of universal relief, as when a pus-filled abscess has been lanced. At film's end, Landesman appends several earnest notes like a biographer who can't let go of his subject. Thus it is we learn Audrey committed suicide in 1984. Aha. Diane Ladd did her damnedest to foreshadow that collateral damage of marriage with Mark Felt, but the director considered her character merely "troubled." Maybe he really doesn't understand how interconnected things are.


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