Mark Felt: The Deep Throat Movie Doesn’t Go Deep Enough

By Rex Weiner

Purely as a cinematic work, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House, is a quietly powerful movie that tells an important story from the past that is all too relevant today. It’s about politics. It’s about personal responsibility. It appears to be a movie for our time.

Unfortunately, it’s also a lie from opening titles to final credits. Not only was FBI-man-turned-super-snitch Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, not The Man Who Brought Down the White House, but the filmmakers’ skin-deep rendition of the events of 1972 collectively known as Watergate — the gravest domestic political crisis of America’s post-WWII era — delivers a dangerously misleading message for our time.

Which is not to say that the Deep Throat Movie totally sucks, so to speak (the real Mark Felt, a deeply conservative man, was said to be ashamed of the porny code name given him by the Washington Post journalists and editors who reported his leaks about White House skullduggery).  For one thing, Mark Felt is actually kind of fun to watch because we sort of know this story. Like a soap opera episode, the characters are familiar and we wait for their appearance: all the president’s men including the three Johns — Dean, Erlichman, and Mitchell, a TV news footage cameo by Richard M. Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover’s chair as a stand-in for just deceased Director. A malevolent Marton Csokas plays the unctuous L. Patrick Gray, tapped by Nixon to head the Bureau, taking the job Felt had worked all his life to attain — a major plot point.

The inevitable scene where an earnest young actor playing Bob Woodward stares goggle-eyed at his shadowy source is a kitschy anti-climax that stirs snickers from the audience because, well, haven’t we been in this dark parking garage before? But forget “Follow the money,” kiddo. That’s the other movie.

In this movie the saga unspools from the Deep State point of view. Liam Neeson delivers a minimalist portrayal of a dedicated career civil servant, all furrowed brow as he’s squeezed between an unhappy home and the unhappier environs of the nation’s highest offices. Probably like a lot of people in Washington today. Diane Lane is tipsily terrific as his wife, Audrey, a woman whose entire life, when not draining a cocktail, is wrapped around a man whose rise at the FBI ranks rescued her from a deplorable upbringing, only to have his professional disappointment become her personal, and ultimately tragic defeat.

Watching Audrey Felt’s sad story unfold, a sub-plot limning the emotional heart of the filmmakers’ narrative, brings to mind the women behind the men — and the men behind some of the women — toiling for the current administration. Particularly the political appointees now coping with financial and career ruin as myriad investigations probe their activities on behalf of the man they worked so hard to elect. At least one of Trump’s former campaign advisers, Michael Caputo, has been forced to liquidate his children’s college fund to pay for legal counsel. One day they’re in the White House, the next they’re in the poor house. Or in prison.

That was Mark Felt’s predicament in 1980, facing a maximum ten year sentence on charges of overseeing “black-bag jobs” — illegal break-ins by FBI agents in pursuit of the bomb-tossing, Dylan-quoting group of former Students for A Democratic Society known as the Weathermen. The break-ins performed on the homes of parents and relatives of the underground dissidents were part of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert operation targeting, wiretapping, infiltrating, and sowing disruption in anti-war, civil rights, and black power groups from the American Indian Movement to the National Lawyers Guild.

It was just one of the many “horrors” (as Nixon referred to the sordid assortment of illegal activities over which he presided) exposed in Watergate’s wake. Testifying six years after his resignation at Felt’s trial, the disgraced Nixon said in the FBI man’s defense that black-bag jobs and other unlawful activities by the federal law enforcement agency, justified for national security reasons, had been routine since Franklin D. Roosevelt ‘s time.

Nevertheless, a jury convicted Felt, who was in turn pardoned by President Reagan. He honestly never viewed his COINTELPRO actions as wrong. “I was shocked that I was indicted,” Felt told FBI historian Ronald Kessler. “You would be too, if you did what you thought was in the best interests of the country and someone on technical grounds indicted you.”

Felt did not escape punishment, however. After five years of legal wrangling and more than half a million dollars in lawyers fees, the ordeal broke apart his family. His daughter disappeared into a hippie cult. Felt’s wife committed suicide in 1984, with his .38 service revolver. To the end of his life, Felt blamed the government for her death.

This is all noted, belatedly, as an odd little coda to the movie, a kind of afterthought. But it’s precisely where the Mark Felt story should begin, if truth were to be told. Unfortunately for the truth, however, the conventions of Hollywood screenwriting require a movie’s protagonist to be a hero, or at least a sympathetic anti-hero. Practically speaking, it’s tough to get a star to take the role otherwise. And how do you pitch this movie to a star’s agent, or to financial backers?

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Leaked” lacks a certain ring.

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Kinda Sorta Helped Bob Woodward With His Scoops” doesn’t fit on a marquee.

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Authorized Illegal Black Bag Jobs Against American Citizens”…

Well, those titles, though perhaps more accurate, wouldn’t sell the pitch. Our G-man has to have a superpower.

No problem, from writer-director Peter Landesman’s point of view. Felt was an admirable fellow: “Lifer lawman discovers corruptions emanating from the highest office in the land, does all he can to investigate, is gagged by orders to implicitly join the cover-up, faces the moral crisis of a man built to defend truth and justice, ultimately chooses to sacrifice all he knows and stands for in the name of a higher calling,” says Landesman in the Sony Classics presskit, explaining his motivations for making the movie. “Felt became to me an object of honor. I related personally to all of this, and owe him the debt of his story. We all do.”

The central reason Mark Felt leaked information to the press, according to Landesman’s script, was Felt’s fear that the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate burglary, and its criminal origins in the White House, was being compromised from on high, and suppressed. This offended the man whose allegiance to the Bureau was akin to a Marine’s loyalty to Semper Fi. Descending to a parking garage to spill the beans to The Washington Post was a matter of defending the Bureau’s honor, which was synonymous with his own.

But where was the man’s sense of honor when he was running COINTELPRO, a program that included hatching a plan to kidnap the infant son of anti-war activist Jennifer Dohrn? The idea, never activated, was to coerce the surrender of her sister, Bernardine Dohrn, who as a member of the Weathermen, had gone underground. Where was Felt’s moral crisis when ordering hundreds of illegal burglaries and wiretaps against American citizens? And where was his morality when the Bureau’s undercover operations against the Black Panther Party led to the murders in 1969 of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark?

While we may be depending upon the upright probity of the FBI these days, the corruption of the FBI from its inception under Felt’s life-long boss, J. Edgar Hoover, is well documented. From Hoover’s jealous hounding of ace G-man Melvin Purvis, the man who shot Pretty Boy Floyd, in the 1930s, to handing the Mafia a free pass in the 1940s, to squelching dissent in the 1950s, and persecuting Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s, America’s top cops were too often rogue actors, deployed by a sociopath. For his entire professional life Felt was Hoover’s unswerving acolyte. The perversion of established law was a career move, if not from the moment he put on the badge, then incrementally over the course of Felt’s 37-year ascension to being Hoover’s next-in-line as Director, before fate took a different turn.

It is true of Mark Felt that the movie portrays an exemplary career, but not the kind to be admired. Instead, Mark Felt exemplifies a career shaped by the day-by-day, 9-to-5 acquiescence to autocratic rule, the chipping away of respect for the democratic process, the disregard for human rights, the degradation of common decency, a Faustian deal that justifies any means to an end. Upon such dutiful careers are merciless regimes built.

Whether or not any Trump administration officials, who by some chance buy a ticket to this movie, will be inspired to follow Felt’s example and blow their whistles on whatever transgressions they may be witnessing, remains to be seen. One can always hope, and the sooner the better.

But we should all understand a singular fact blurred by the movie’s title: The Man Who Brought Down The White House in 1972 was the man in the White House. We just need to get the story right, if and when it happens again.

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