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Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 103 Minutes


This is a completely different view of the Watergate investigation than what you get from both the book and the movie “All the President’s Men,” about the Washington Post Woodward & Bernstein Watergate coverage. To start, there is very little Woodward and no Bernstein.

Rather, it tells the personal story of Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), who was #2 in the FBI, and the heir apparent when J. Edgar Hoover died about a month before the Watergate break-in, and his tortured relationship with what was going on in the Nixon White House. It also presents a shattering picture of his relationship with his troubled wife Audrey (Diane Lane).

Writer-director Peter Landesman has chosen to shoot it extremely darkly. In fact he might as well have saved the money and shot it in black-and-white, so dark are most of the images. Landsman stated that he “used color that was moody but never artificial.” He says he “shot almost everything through blue filters to cool everything off. Cool but never cold. Colors play the emotions.” I think this was a bad decision because the cinematography detracts from the story Landsman is trying to tell.

Another problem I had with the movie relates to keeping straight who the many characters that appear are. The only two characters other than the main ones that I could get straight were L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas), a Nixon apparatchik who replaced J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI upon Hoover’s death, and John Dean (Michael C Hall). The others, and the relationship they had to the issues, were constantly unclear and confusing.

I have no idea of the truth and accuracy of this film. I always hesitate to believe what I see on screen created by Hollywood because they take such great licenses with the truth.

My main problem with Deep Throat is the legality and ethics of Felt’s actions, so I asked an old friend, Robert Bonner, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California (which includes Los Angeles) and served two positions in Bush Administrations, Head of Customs and Head of DEA. Here’s what he said,

“…there is no question that Felt disclosed ‘law enforcement sensitive’ information that he was not authorized to disclose, and had it been known to the FBI would have subjected him to discipline, including potential termination. In other words, every FBI Agent knows that it violates FBI policy to disclose to persons not authorized to have it ‘law enforcement sensitive’ (LES) documents and information derived from same. This would include all reports of FBI interviews of persons in connection with an ongoing FBI investigation, e.g., the Watergate investigation.

“On the other hand, LES documents and information are typically not classified. Therefore, the criminal penalties that would attach to the disclosure of classified information would not apply. Compare the Ellsberg case which did involve classified documents.

“If an FBI Agent was paid to provide LES information that could and should be prosecuted as bribery, or accepting of a bribe in exchange for providing LES information. Several federal agents have been prosecuted for providing LES to, e.g., one of the Mexican drug cartels.

“My guess is that Mark Felt did not commit a crime when he disclosed LES information, because he did not take money in exchange for it and it was not classified information.  But I would need a few more facts to be sure. He clearly violated FBI policy that forbids an Agent from disclosing LES information.” 

So the morality and legality of what Felt did is still as opaque as it ever was.

The film is certainly not as compelling or entertaining a film as All the Presidents Men (1976), but it is an arguably believable take on a man who prided himself on his integrity and that of the FBI, yet whose lasting legacy is mixed. Some see him as a traitor who clandestinely revealed closely held information to the media, and who was clearly a liar, because he constantly lied about his identity as Deep Throat.

According to Woodward, before a Watergate related Grand Jury Felt was asked by Stanley Pottinger, the Assistant Attorney General heading the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Dept., whether the Nixon White House had pressed the FBI to conduct "black-bag jobs" -- covert break-ins to gain intelligence data in domestic security cases. While denying there was any pressure, Felt made an off-hand remark, Woodward wrote, that "he was such a frequent visitor of the White House during that time period that some people thought he was Deep Throat."

After Pottinger and his Justice Department colleagues completed their interrogation, the jurors were asked if they had any questions for Felt. According to Woodward, one juror asked a simple question, "Were you?"

"Was I what?" Felt inquired.

"Were you Deep Throat?"

Felt said no but was visibly shaken, Woodward wrote. Recognizing the delicacy of the situation, Pottinger told the court stenographer to stop taking notes. He approached Felt and quietly reminded him that he was under oath and needed to answer the question truthfully.

Then he gave Felt an out. He told him that he considered the question outside the purview of the investigation and would have the question withdrawn if Felt asked him to do so. Felt quickly made the request, but in doing so he gave Pottinger the answer to the question.

Pottinger relayed the story to Woodward at a luncheon in 1976 but, apparently believing in the right of reporters to have confidential sources, kept the tale of the grand jury testimony quiet.

So if it was an honorable thing to do, and he did it, why did he lie about it and keep it hidden for 30 years? On the other hand, the film paints him as a paragon of virtue, and if that’s true, so be it.

What Landesman has done very well that is indisputable is the casting of the two main characters. While Diane Lane is one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of Hollywood, the person she was playing, Audrey, was her equal in beauty. Neeson is almost a dead ringer for Mark Felt.