Mark Felt:  The Man Who Brought Down the White House


            It's the Spring of 1972.  People are protesting the Vietnam War outside the White House.  Richard Nixon is seeking a second term as President.  And the FBI is running the same way it had for the previous 48 years under J. Edgar Hoover:  as a thoroughly independent investigative institution.

Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), as Deputy Assistant Director, had been with the Bureau for 30 years, and was fiercely loyal not only to Mr. Hoover, but to the ideal of the Bureau's independence from Washington politics (never mind the subsequent discoveries demonstrating that Mr. Hoover himself was not exactly the impartial innocent).

            When Mark Felt got word of Mr. Hoover's death, on May 2nd, he immediately put into action the post-mortem instructions:  the whole set of private, confidential files of Mr. Hoover's were destroyed.  Shredded.  Burned.  So that when the White House's chosen replacement, Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) arrived on the scene to demand possession of the files, Mark Felt could honestly look him in the eye and deadpan, “What files?”

            Mark Felt quickly realized that things were never going to be the same at the FBI.  Patrick Gray's previous assignment had been in the Navy, commanding a submarine.  He had no previous experience in law enforcement.  He was purely a political appointee.  And the minions at the White House made it clear to him that they appointed him, and therefore they expected information from him.  Mark Felt was aghast to learn this; he felt it destroyed the one inviolate rule at the FBI:  independence.  Moreover, he may have believed that he would be the logical choice to succeed Hoover, but he was savvy enough to realize that in Nixon's White House, that wasn't going to happen.  He probably harbored some resentment about that, but his wife, Audrey (Diane Lane), was vitriolic in her bitterness.  They were also suffering from the absence of their daughter, who'd gone underground and off the radar somewhere, presumably in one of those hippie communes, but they really didn't know where she was.  They only hoped she hadn't been radicalized enough to join the Weather Underground radicals in actively bombing federal government buildings, because they were the kind of lawbreakers the FBI was actively hunting down.

            But that's not the only irony here.  After the amateurish Watergate bungled burglary came to light, the White House, through acting Director Gray, actively sought to squash the investigation, or at least hinder it in spiraling upwards to higher government officials.  Mark Felt couldn't stand by and do nothing any longer.  He sought out journalists, first the editor of “Time,” then the reporters for the “Washington Post” (Woodward and Bernstein), and became their source, dubbed “Deep Throat.”

            Though the movie could have been a lot clearer about this, it was Mark Felt's revelations that led to the Congressional Watergate inquiry which led straight to the Oval Office.  Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, rather than face impeachment proceedings.

            Was Mark Felt happy?  Well, as represented by this movie, anyway, he was never really very effusive about anything.  Except maybe meeting the grandson he didn't know he had.  The incendiary mix of politics and dirty tricks, of secrets and lies, of stonewalling and backstabbing, of leaks and spin doctors, sounds all too familiar.  It seems that the names and faces change, but the script doesn't.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What do you think would be suitable grounds for impeachment?

2)                  When have you been disappointed about not achieving your personal ambition?

3)                  Have you ever been tempted to be the whistleblower?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association