This article was published in the October 2017 issue of UTSC’s The Underground.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House” is a new spy thriller
movie that looks back at the true story of one of the biggest political scandals in
American history: Watergate. Given the current political climate, it’s implications are
hard to ignore.
A great American president once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear
itself,” but in truth, there are tons of things to be fearful of. The looming threat of nuclear
war, powerful hurricanes like Harvey and Irma happening more frequently than ever
before, acts of terrorism being committed everywhere from pedestrian-filled streets to
entertainment venues, and Donald Trump being the president of the United States.
Since the election last Fall, Trump has dominated headlines. If it’s not collusion,
it’s racism; if it’s not diplomatic-beef, it’s a high-profile firing; if it’s not an inaccurate
statement, 588, it’s something else, and it’s never good. Between Stephen Colbert’s
satire, Anderson Cooper’s analysis, and Trump’s own Twitter account, politics has never
been so close to people’s consciousness. All of this focus on politics has hurt the ratings
of shows like “Scandal”, “The Americans”, and “House of Cards.” People are suffering
from political fatigue, and they don’t want reality to encroach on their entertainment. I
don’t blame them, but I disagree.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”, which debuted at
TIFF this year, is a biographical spy-thriller film starring Liam Neeson, directed and
written by Peter Landesman. The film tells the story of Deputy Associate Director of the
FBI, Mark Felt, who became the legendary whistleblower “Deep Throat” in virtue of his
role in the investigation which led reporters to the Watergate scandal. Watergate was a
major political scandal in the ’70s in which people associated with president Richard
Nixon’s administration tried to cover up their involvement in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The scandal revealed abuse of power from the Nixon administration including obstruction of justice, funding criminals, and illegal recording. Watergate resulted in 69 indictments, 48 guilty pleas, an impeachment process against Nixon, and his eventual resignation.
The movie is two hours long, displays politics and bureaucracy, and is dialogue-
centric, yet intense and incredibly gripping. Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Mark Felt is masterful: he has a real presence, as if he could jump out of the screen and talk you
down right there. Right from the opening scene, you get a sense of what Felt is like:
uncompromising, intelligent, well-respected, and dedicated to his job; however, Felt was
not perfect. He, like his late boss, J. Edgar Hoover, occasionally broke the rules in order
to do what he thought was right–namely, protect the FBI, even if that meant clashing
with powerful people.
There’s an underlying tension that runs throughout the movie–a constant sense
of danger despite there being no violence. One of the directorial choices I really liked is
that of Nixon only appearing via audio and TV broadcasts and not actually being a
character in the movie. I found it a little eerie at first and it reminded me of “Jaws”–
referring to the way in which you didn’t have to see the threat in order to know what it
was and feel worried. In “Mark Felt”, the shark is secrecy and corruption and it’s always
lurking. The fact that Nixon isn’t a character and he’s referred to more often as “the
president” than by name, it made me think this could be anywhere in the world, which I
found very eerie.
Secrets, morality, power, and corruption are central in “Mark Felt”, and the
audience gets to see how they interact and how they influenced the Watergate scandal.
Through conversations and information gathering, we see how Watergate developed
and came to light despite the efforts of the Nixon administration to gag the investigation
and control the narrative in the media. There have already been comparisons made
between Nixon with Watergate and Trump with the Russia scandal, and this movie
surely won’t cool talk of that.
I left the theatre informed and scared, but I think that’s an appropriate response. Unlike spy movies with hidden passageways, special gadgets, and secret identities,
“Mark Felt” is rooted in reality, since government corruption is all too real. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal”, said in an interview with The New York Times that her
show “is basically a horror story. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if
anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out.” It
might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the people involved in Watergate are
monsters, but they certainly are criminals. “Mark Felt” shines light on the monsters that
were under the covers in the ’70s and provides reasonable justification for people to
freak out given the current condition of the globe.
We’re living in a crazy time where what we see on TV is easier to believe than
reality. Rhimes says, “You can always tell a horror story when the light is on. But now
the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories,” but that’s
the best time to do it. It’s okay to be afraid: you should be. Besides, it’s better to be
afraid–and know why you’re afraid–than to be oblivious to the monsters in the dark.