Do sleeping dogs lie forever? The question can be asked about Peter Landesman’s biopic of Mark Felt, the FBI agent who leaked drop after drop of damning information regarding the Watergate burglary to Bod Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, until they turned into a flood that drowned Nixon and acolytes in 1974.
If one relies on the story as it is told here, the dogs will indeed not wake. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson, unrecognizable as a near-twin of the man he plays), a thirty-year FBI veteran slated to replace Edgar Hoover upon his sudden death and passed over remains a glum cipher with motives as murky as the cloak-and-dagger world he lives in.
Indeed, like other events of our contemporary history such as the Kennedy assassination, so much remains to be uncovered that the secretive atmosphere in which protagonists move may still be the best representation of what led to the reelected president’s fall.
The Landesman film doesn’t give us a single of the thrilling moments with which the 1979 Alan J. Pakula film “All the President’s Men” was brimming. But then, that film starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hofmann, Mark Felt hadn’t been outed and the movie crackled with revelations and suspense.
Here, Felt himself, on the surface a proud G-man, leaves us wondering as to motives and personality. Unless the motives were simply crass and he throws everyone to the wolves upon not getting the promotion he thinks he deserves more than anyone at the agency and certainly more than the outsider who replaces him and whose only purpose seems to be doing the White House’s bidding in the coverup. Felt, like government employees too long in their job, is much like the bland furniture that fills all those offices and is filmed in a chiaroscuro that leaves us to interpret expressions and character flaws or virtues according to our personal bias.
What works here is the old Washington, a story that after all these decades remains fascinating. But nothing else stands out, not the events and not the people. The main players, Dean, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, etc. are barely mentioned and differentiated; Nixon himself is seen through actual news broadcasts, reminding us that he was and still is a figure that elicits some pity, if not sympathy, that the present occupant of the White House will not receive the day he is thrown out on his ear as he well deserves.
Side stories such as the not particularly-moving disappearance of Felt’s daughter and the moods of his broken wife (Diane Lane) don’t bring this rather inert vehicle to life but the whole “Deep Throat” journey of the exemplary government employee still astounds as does the Watergate saga itself.