Mark Felt is a 2017 biopic starring Liam Neeson as FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, telling the story of his role in becoming a source for the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate. Following on from recent episodes on John Paisley and the Weather Underground, I offer a deconstructive view of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, and a critique of its historical inaccuracy and political deceit.
I stumbled across this film while browsing for thriller films, and in many respects it’s a very typical, glossy American thriller movie. I enjoyed watching it, Liam Neeson is very good even though he looks and sounds nothing like Mark Felt, and the supporting cast are mostly strong. In particular Diane Lane as Felt’s wife, who was largely cut out of the finished film, is excellent. As a piece of entertainment it is solid, but not exceptional.
However, as a piece of historical biography it is a bit shoddy, and its politics are very inconsistent. For those of you who don’t know the story, shortly before the Watergate break in by a bunch of ‘ex’ FBI and CIA employees, long time FBI director J Edgar Hoover died. Mark Felt, the deputy director, was the obvious heir to the throne, but he was overlooked in favour of Patrick Gray, a Nixon loyalist. Gray had never been an FBI agent, had no qualification for the role apart from a brief period in the Justice Department in the first Nixon administration.
The way the head of Stratfor, George Friedman, tells it Felt became a leaker and helped take down Nixon out of revenge for being passed over for the job in favour of a political hack. Meanwhile, Gray was given the documents from CIA agent turned Watergate overseer Howard Hunt’s safe at the White House, by White House counsel John Dean. He destroyed those documents, and provided Dean with the FBI’s reports on Watergate. Gray eventually admitted as much in April 1973, resigning his post as acting director of the Bureau.
The way the film tells it, Felt and Gray did not get along and Felt was particularly pissed off because Gray was handing the FBI’s reports on Watergate over to John Dean and the White House. Felt tried to restrict the flow of information to Gray, giving him only the headlines, so Gray bypassed him. The White House put pressure on the FBI to conclude their investigation, but Felt insisted they press on.
It is not clear exactly when Felt changed his mind, but there are several scenes of him talking about the Nixon administration and the sheer corruption and illegality involved. This is where things get tricky, because the Mark Felt film departs from every other account I’ve read as to when he started to leak to journalists.
The FBI knew about Hunt’s connection to the break-in almost immediately – his name was in two of the burglar’s address books, after all. Just three days after the break-in the Washington Post ran a story about Hunt, for which Deep Throat was a key source. Bob Woodward has said as much.
But the film doesn’t portray Felt as meeting with Woodward, or even talking to him on the phone, until much later. Instead, his first meeting with any reporter is portrayed as being with Sandy Smith of Time magazine.
In reality, Felt and Woodward first met in 1969 or 1970, when Woodward was an aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Moorer. Woodward had used Felt as a source prior to Watergate, most notably on the investigation into Arthur H Bremer, the guy who shot Democratic presidential nominee George Wallace. Bremer shot Wallace five times, but only three days later Woodward was publishing a story in part based on what Felt told him.
Mark Felt: The Movie avoids all of this, and Woodward doesn’t even appear until more than halfway through the film – after Nixon’s re-election. Instead of Mark Felt appearing as a dodgy, ambitious bureaucrat who routinely leaked information to friendly journalists, he is shown as a noble man who only took to leaking in response to Watergate and the pressure to limit the investigation.
Ironically, this historical inaccuracy and romantic biography contains the means for its own deconstruction. As long-time listeners will know, I’m very much in the camp that believes Nixon was removed in a soft power coup. More on that shortly, but I’m also in the camp that believes Felt was not the only source, that there were multiple people amalgamated into ‘Deep Throat’. And that John Paisley was most likely one of those other sources. Indeed, it was Pat Gray’s son, Edward Gray, who used his father’s Watergate files to produce a memoir, of sorts, arguing that ‘Deep Throat’ was several people, including Felt.
By avoiding the fact that Felt was a source for the Howard Hunt story just days after the Watergate break-in, the film accidentally advances this alternate narrative. The story is referred to in one scene and attributed to a leaker, but it is never even suggested that Felt was responsible. Which implies there has to be an additional high-level leaker out there who the Washington Post would later call ‘Deep Throat’. If you watched this film without knowing that Felt was a source for that story, you would have to conclude there was at least one other leaker who had access to the same information. By virtue of its historical inaccuracy and its desire to present Felt as a noble man, the film undermines and deconstructs its own central premise.
The Man Who Took Down the White House?
The film’s subtitle: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is similarly problematic. Woodward and Bernstein reportedly lobbied for the subtitle to be changed, and have criticised both the choice of the subtitle and the general narrative thrust of the film. They argue that no one person, and not even the Washington Post as a whole, took down the White House.
In some ways, the Nixon White House destroyed itself. The corruption was so brazen, and so incompetent, that they were bound to get caught sooner or later. They recorded themselves talking about this stuff, which is what ultimately proved their undoing. One excellent reconstruction, at least of the conventional story of Watergate, is provided by All the President’s Men Revisited. It’s a TV documentary produced by Robert Redford, who of course starred as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men. It is partly a making of documentary about All the President’s Men, partly a historic review and retrospective on the Watergate scandal itself. Here’s a clip about John Dean’s testimony at the Watergate hearings and how it led to a White House aide revealing the existence of the secret tapes:
(41:00 – 49:50)
One might argue that Alex Butterfield and John Dean did more to take down Nixon than Mark Felt ever did. Some reviewers of the Mark Felt film said that in their view Felt wasn’t even trying to take down Nixon, but rather was trying to leverage his opponents out of the way so he could become FBI director. This snowballed and blew back on him, resulting not only in the end of Nixon but also in the end of Felt’s 30-year FBI career.
Indeed, the film lends credence not only to this idea – that Felt’s attempt at self-promotion went wrong – but also to the notion of a deep state being behind the fall of Nixon. For no obvious reason, in that it isn’t at all important to the narrative, Felt has a meeting with a unnamed CIA officer who tells him, Donald Sutherland-style, what’s going on.
So in a film about how one man took down the corrupt administration, we have this frank confession that there is some kind of perpetual deep state that revolves around the intelligence agencies. Bear in mind, this is an absolute contradiction in historical philosophies. One says that individuals can and do sometimes make the crucial difference to major events. The other says that there are covert centres of power that systemically interfere in markets and politics. That is not to say that both cannot be true at the same time, but this film deconstructs itself as a coherent text by including this scene.
This is quite likely for commercial reasons. The film was clearly seeking to cash in on renewed interest in Watergate in light of Russiagate, the somewhat similar but not particularly scandal plaguing the Trumpreich. Likewise, the notion of a deep state has gained an enormous amount of attention in the last couple of years. But in trying to cash in (and it seems, failing, since the film did poorly) the producers invited into their script the very historical narrative that undermines their story.
The Weather Underground
The final element of this film that I want to examine is its portrait of the Weather Underground. As we explored a couple of episodes ago, Mark Felt was instrumental in ordering the illegal operations conducted against the Weathermen. Many of the more serious charges against Weather Underground members were thrown out because of illegal surveillance ordered by Felt. He was prosecuted and convicted, though he was then pardoned by incoming president Ronald Reagan.
In the film, in the background of the story about Felt and Watergate is a bastardised version of the real history of the FBI and the Weather Underground. It begins in an early scene when we see Felt arrived at work after a meeting at the White House. A caption dates this as 178 days before the election.
While our attention is drawn to the death of J Edgar Hoover, we’ve just been given the first little bit of propaganda about the Weather Underground. They talk of 29 bombings, but act as though they all involved nails and ball bearings, i.e. anti-personnel bombings designed to injure and kill people. Aside from the multiple bombings plot that took place a couple of years earlier, all of the Weather Underground’s actions were non-lethal.
So the film is deceiving the audience, encouraging them to think that the Weather Underground were carrying out dozens of lethal bombings, which they weren’t. This is important because of what comes next. After the Watergate break-in, 43 days before the election, Weather bombed the Pentagon. In the film, Felt is awoken by the phone while his TV plays news of the bombing.
The film is clearly trying to establish a sub-plot whereby Felt’s actions against the Weather Underground seem less immoral, or even justified. He uses a lot of the same rhetoric that is now used to excuse pre-emptive surveillance, detention and the whole gamut of ‘counter-terror measures’. Whereas in reality the Weather Underground were only one of a number of radical groups, both Left and Right, who were carrying out bombings in the US in this period. Planes were getting hijacked, some were blowing up in mid-air, this was the same period that Samuel Byck tried to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. Likewise, the FBI were already spying on the Weather Underground for at least a couple of years prior to the Pentagon bombing.
The FBI knew all this. Mark Felt knew all this. Presumably the film-makers knew a lot of this too. So why, in this lionisation of Mark Felt, did they include this very weak sub-plot? I’m guessing they were trying to make it more relevant. I don’t believe the FBI supported this film. They aren’t credited, but then they usually aren’t so that doesn’t mean anything, but the FBI do not come across very well in this film. When Hoover dies Felt immediately orders his personal files to be destroyed. The Bureau is dysfunctional, with its Acting Director and its Deputy Director constantly at odds. The director frequently cows to the White House, even doing illegal things in the process. Felt orders illegal measures against the Weather Underground in a fit of rage.
So this is unlikely to be FBI propaganda, though I can’t be certain. It does seem they had some involvement very early on, 10 years before the movie came out and when Tom Hanks was thinking about playing the lead. But Hanks took a step back, was a producer on the project, Jay Roach who was attached to direct also didn’t end up doing it – a lot happened between when the FBI were involved and when the film was actually made.
That being said, I can see an angle for them. Even though the FBI are shown in a fairly negative light, the Weather Underground are portrayed in an even worse light – inaccurately so. While specific FBI officials, including very high officials, are portrayed doing illegal things the Bureau itself is spoken of in very glowing terms. So maybe, just maybe, they did work on the film again shortly before its production.
This all sets up the very end of the film, when Felt is being questioned in front of a grand jury about his ordering of illegal operations.
I think this is pretty clever, and a very good way to end the film. Felt admits he ordered the operations, takes full responsibility, and comes across as an honest man trying to make good on his mistakes. This is not only consistent with the very narrow and inaccurate narrative the film is trying to promote, it also exonerates the FBI more broadly. It makes it seem like the system works, eventually.
Then a member of the grand jury asks Felt if he is Deep Throat, and we never hear the answer. Again, this deconstructs the core message of the film, implying that maybe he wasn’t Deep Throat after all. But if he wasn’t then he isn’t the Man who Brought Down the White House, he’s a crooked FBI agent who broke the law. So even this secondary part of the plot about Felt’s relationship with the Weather Underground, undoes itself.
Narrative entropy finds a way to unravel simplistic stories, and even complex ones. This movie tries to sell a simple tale of one man fighting against the odds. In doing so it employs historical inaccuracy in the name of narrative coherence, but that proved its undoing. In some ways the most fascinating thing about this film is how it manages to undermine everything it is trying to say, and I don’t believe this is on purpose. It’s just the nature of storytelling.