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Movie Review

Deep Throat speaks in ‘Mark Felt’

Liam Neeson in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.”
Liam Neeson in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.”Sony Pictures Classics

The idea of the Watergate crisis as an interoffice spat makes a surreal kind of sense — what is Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on “The Office” but a kinder, dumber Richard M. Nixon? — but “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” takes the idea to an extreme. The reason the title character, the second in command at the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the early 1970s, chose to speak to Washington Post reporters under cover of the code-name Deep Throat is because — ta-da! — he was angry that the Nixon White House and the Department of Justice were curtailing the FBI’s power in investigating the Watergate break-in.

Outrage over malfeasance committed by those high up in government? A definite factor. Love of country and a desire to protect our democratic ideals? On the evidence of this movie, those took a distant third. Written and directed by Peter Landesman (“Concussion”) from the 2006 memoir “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” (written by Felt with John O’Connor), “Mark Felt” is an odd, plodding, rather chilly historical reenactment, with a hero whose primary dramatic motor — resentment at being passed over for a promotion — is only obliquely acknowledged.

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Liam Neeson plays Felt as the ultimate company man, a dour, rectitudinal FBI true believer who served under J. Edgar Hoover for 30 years and who expected that, when Hoover died (as he does early in this movie) he’d ascend to the directorship.

Instead, with six months to go before the 1972 presidential election and Hoover’s exiled dirty-trickster Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore) having Nixon’s ear, Felt is passed over for then Deputy Attorney General L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas). The Watergate break-in happens and Felt’s efforts to get to the bottom of the mess are stymied by Gray, an outsider who still has the power to shut things down. Presented this way, Felt has little choice but to meet surreptitiously with reporters like Time magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and, in the famous underground garage meetings, Bob Woodward (Julian Morris).

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But we’ve already seen Felt, in the film’s very first scene, thoroughly cow a room full of the president’s men by hinting that Mr. Hoover has files on them all and that Felt knows exactly what secrets lie within. “Mark Felt” is a drama about an aggrieved control freak, which would be fine if director Landesman openly acknowledged it. He’s torn, though between offering a heroic celebration of the republic’s underappreciated savior and a more damning character portrait of a man who, for complex reasons, ended up doing the right thing.

Neeson’s portrayal is similarly stuck between gears, but he’s always interesting to watch. The rest of the cast ranges from good (Tony Goldwyn and Josh Lucas as Felt’s right-hand men) to bad (Csokas can’t quite quash his New Zealand accent as the St. Louis-born Gray) to weird (Michael C. Hall as White House counsel John Dean, enough said). Poor Diane Lane has the thankless role of Felt’s wife, Audrey, who’s a randy free spirit in some scenes and an uptight neurotic in others; an end credit informs us that Audrey Felt committed suicide in 1984, but Lane has room only to hint at the character’s personal struggles.

Why does this movie feel so tentative, so conflicted? God knows there are parallels to today, with an investigation into alleged wrongdoing during a presidential campaign and a prosecutorial watchdog amassing evidence under threats from the White House. Does Landesman want us to make those connections? Or does he just want to glance off their topicality? As with so much else in this movie, it’s unclear. Somewhere in this project is a vicious bureaucratic farce, but probably only Terry Gilliam or Armando Iannucci (“Veep”) could pull it off.

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A secondary plot has Felt leading the investigation into the bombings carried out by the radical movement the Weather Underground, even as he’s trying to locate the rebellious daughter (Maika Monroe of “It Follows”) who he fears might be among their number. When the two finally do reconnect, it’s the only honest emotional moment in the film — ironic, given that “Mark Felt” is only about the biggest constitutional crisis of the 20th century. Maybe Neeson feels he’s in the next “Taken,” but the audience is the one that feels took.

★ ★
MARK FELT: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Directed by Peter Landesman. Written by Landesman, based on books by Mark Felt and John D. O’Connor. Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Martin Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas. At Kendall Square. 103 minutes. PG-13 (some language).


Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.