Well into Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, in a bar with two of his closest special agents, Liam Neeson’s Mark felt sits in reflection, discussing the Watergate case and the singular role of the FBI in the United States. Then, he recants a piece of life advice from his father, Mark Felt Sr. ‘Your life should be a vector, a directional force.’ He points his arms straight out in front of him to illustrate. This Felt believes that the FBI, and his role within it, should be steadfast and unwavering, his trajectory straight and narrow and flat. This is both a key aspect of the character and a key aspect of the movie. And while undoubtedly full of conviction and nobility, this disposition can be stifling. It can lead to the neglect of other significant responsibilities in a man’s life, and in the effectiveness of a film. Mark Felt’s role as a husband and father falters and fails to suffice, swallowed by his government duties. In a similar fashion, the film that depicts him often lets timely political parallels and overbearing aesthetics wash over the other necessary characteristics of a successful political drama.
Felt is tireless and indomitable, demanding detailed results and transparency from even his closest associates. Neeson exhibits this doggedness well, but doesn’t find room for a true expression of the moral fiber within the real-life Felt. Aside from a few beats in the story meant to portray his emotional struggles, both at work and at home, there isn’t much to illuminate the actual inner life of the character. He doesn’t quite feel like a real human being. Character dynamics are also shallow, the significance of Felt’s relationships with others being set up in single scenes and never developing gradually. Diane Lane feels underused as Mark Felt’s long-suffering wife, whose devotion to her husband and his career has stunted her own life as a wife and mother. While the sadness of her situation is apparent, it never rises to the level of an actual conflict. Ultimately, Mrs. Felt comes across more as a complacent and passionless foil to the persistent, tenacious Mark, which strikes me as unfair to her real life counterpart, and dismisses her legitimate feelings of neglect and loss.
As the acting here is one-note, so is the visual style. The film uses a low key, blue-hued lighting scheme at nearly all times. This comes across as an attempt to adopt the cold and sterile look which David Fincher successfully employs in his work, specifically in regards to his series, House of Cards. While derivative, it’s also blatantly overused, drowning the entire film in an inescapable visual monotony and, through its exaggerated darkness, making some shots hard to even see. In addition, there are Paul Greengrass-like attempts at editing, jump cutting closer and closer to Neeson’s face during an intense monologue, the camera becoming less stable with each change of shot. Not only does this method call too much attention to itself, but it’s badly timed. There are a few stylistic choices here that fail by being way too show-offy, to the point of being jarring.
Of course, the subject matter is meant to focus on illicit White House dealings which are thought to be going on today. This isn’t a problem, but because the film is so adamant on representing today’s fears, it fails to paint the entire picture of the Watergate aftermath. Carl Bernstein is shown in only one scene, and his role in working with Felt’s “Deep Throat” is downplayed far too much. Proper time was rightfully given to Felt’s work within his department, but the script doesn’t do enough to fill in the rest and supplement the other films on the subject, which it ostensibly is supposed to do. The picture of a competent and unbiased FBI uncovering corruption acts as a beacon of hope for today, but also makes the story lopsided. With so much buzz, today, about “fake news”, the lack of a dynamic between Felt and the press in this film deprives it of what could have been its most powerful tool. | Nic Champion