A White House drama for any era

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FILM - SI­MON HOUPT

A film about the man known as Deep Throat in the Water­gate scan­dal sheds light on the hu­man con­di­tion

Long be­fore the pres­i­dency of Don­ald Trump – which is to say, be­fore the world was seized by a fever dream of swirling para­noia, dizzy­ing chaos and ob­struc­tion-of-jus­tice al­le­ga­tions – the writer-di­rec­tor Peter Lan­des­man had an idea for a movie about a scan­dal that brought down a pres­i­dent: one of para­noia, chaos and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

Even bet­ter, it was a true story, about the man known as Deep Throat – Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein’s se­cret source dur­ing their Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion. For more than 10 years, Lan­des­man laboured to bring it to the screen, never dream­ing that it would end up point­ing so di­rectly to our own era. Which brings to mind the ques­tion: In Hol­ly­wood, where suc­cess de­pends largely on tim­ing, is Lan­des­man the luck­i­est man alive? Or – given the pub­lic’s col­lec­tive ex­haus­tion of keep­ing up with the daily Trump drama – the un­luck­i­est?

“Oh, lucky,” Lan­des­man in­sisted dur­ing an in­ter­view at last month’s Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, where Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House had its world pre­miere. “The rel­e­vance is su­per­nat­u­rally co­in­ci­den­tal. I’m not sur­prised. I’m sur­prised Trump’s in my life. But I’m not sur­prised that hu­man be­hav­iour is re­peat­ing it­self, be­cause hu­man be­hav­iour does what it does all the time.”

Lan­des­man ac­knowl­edged that the par­al­lels might make it dif­fi­cult for au­di­ences to judge the film on its own mer­its. But he noted that his last film, Con­cus­sion, in which Will Smith starred as a neu­ropathol­o­gist who dis­cov­ers a con­nec­tion between foot­ball and the brain con­di­tion chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), also in­ter­sected hard with the head­lines.

“Look, when­ever a movie takes on an iconic mo­ment that peo­ple have a lot of opin­ions about, some large per­cent­age – 30, 40 per cent – will not be able to see the movie as a movie. They’ll project onto it their own ideas, ex­pec­ta­tions.” Still, he added, “I em­brace it.” Felt, the FBI’s sec­ond-in-com- mand, had to fend off moves by the Nixon White House to shut down the bu­reau’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the June, 1972, break-in of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters at the Water­gate of­fice com­plex, which had been car­ried out by men work­ing for the Com­mit­tee to re-elect the pres­i­dent. The bu­reau was al­ready in a rocky state: Its long­time head, J. Edgar Hoover, had died that May, and it was un­der fire for fail­ing to halt a se­ries of bomb­ings by the left-wing rev­o­lu­tion­ary group known as the Weather Un­der­ground.

For those who know about the Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion pri­mar­ily from Wood­ward and Bern­stein’s 1974 book, All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, or its mas­ter­ful 1976 film adap­ta­tion, Mark Felt shades in some of the mys­ter­ies, such as why the re­porters’ FBI sources seemed so skit­tish.

In the film, Felt (Liam Nee­son), who has been with the bu­reau for 30 years, is re­sent­ful af­ter Hoover dies and the top job goes to a White House-friendly lackey. When the new boss threat­ens to end the Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Felt keeps it alive by leak­ing de­tails to Time magazine re­porter Sandy Smith (Bruce Green­wood) and oth­ers. (The char­ac­ter of Bob Wood­ward ap­pears in only one brief scene; when he tells Felt that the Wash­ing­ton Post news­room has dubbed him “Deep Throat,” the G-Man is not amused.)

Even as he leads a small cadre of agents in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and thwarts sus­pi­cions that he is the one leak­ing to the press, Felt nav­i­gates a tor­tured home life, buoy­ing up his de­pres­sive, al­co­holic wife, Au­drey (Diane Lane), while try­ing to track down his run­away daugh­ter, whom he fears has joined the Weather Un­der­ground.

For more than three decades, Deep Throat’s true iden­tity re­mained a mys­tery, un­til Felt came out in an ex­plo­sive June, 2005, Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle. (He died three years later.) The film rights to the story were quickly sewn up by Tom Hanks’s com­pany, Play­tone, and Lan­des­man was des­per­ate to land the writ­ing as­sign­ment, but he fig­ured his chances were slim: At the time, he was an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist (his sto­ries for The New York Times Magazine in­clude ones about art forg­eries and sex traf­fick­ing in the U.S.), but he had no screen cred­its.

“I knew I was go­ing to be go­ing up against ev­ery good screen­writer in the busi­ness, and I was a no­body,” said Lan­des­man. “The only way I was go­ing to get that job is if I forced them to hire me. And the only way to do that was by find­ing out the truth.” So he set out to in­ves­ti­gate and dis­cover the true story, lo­cat­ing and speak­ing with some of the re­al­life key fig­ures. (Some years later, he took on di­rect­ing du­ties, too.)

At the time, he says, no­body else knew the back story of Felt’s daugh­ter, or his wife, who died by sui­cide in 1984. (Those de­tails came out in a 2006 mem­oir cowrit­ten by Felt.)

In a sep­a­rate in­ter­view at TIFF, Nee­son said the ex­plo­ration of Felt’s per­sonal life was what drew him on board the project. “One of the thoughts I had was, I’m play­ing some­one who’s quite in­scrutable, and is hard to read,” said Nee­son, ex­plain­ing that he watched an old in­ter­view Felt had given, “and he was asked, ‘Are you Deep Throat?’ and he kind of smirked and just laughed and said, ‘No, I’m not’ – and I be­lieved him! So I thought, he’s a good ac­tor, you know?”

“For 90 per cent of the film we’re see­ing a guy just walk­ing down cor­ri­dors and on the tele­phone and sit­ting be­hind desks: ‘Are the au­di­ence go­ing to get bored?’ That was my over­all kind of thought of the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing the film.”

But then, he said, he read a scene in which Felt finds his daugh­ter. “I thought – fi­nally, okay, we can al­low the au­di­ence a re­lease. I can ‘un­zip’ Mark Felt to a cer­tain ex­tent, show an emo­tion of a guy who deeply, deeply loved his daugh­ter – and his wife, too.”

The core of the story, though, is the loyal FBI agent fight­ing be­hind the scenes for jus­tice to be done. Lan­des­man ev­i­dently feels pro­tec­tive of his main char­ac­ter, es­pe­cially those who have ar­gued that Felt leaked to the press out of re­venge for los­ing out on the top job. “That’s so non­sen­si­cal,” he said dis­mis­sively.

And there is a pro­pri­etary el­e­ment to the way Lan­des­man speaks of his sub­ject, as if he knows more about Felt and the Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion than even those who re­ported it at the time. He praised the film adap­ta­tion of All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, call­ing it “a piece of mag­is­te­rial art,” but then added, “That film is a mas­ter­piece. It’s not true! But it is a mas­ter­piece.”

What does he mean by “not true”? Is he sug­gest­ing Wood­ward and Bern­stein’s re­port­ing was in­cor­rect?

“I think they got to write their mythol­ogy first,” Lan­des­man replied. “And I think that the au­thor of his­tory is the guy who gets there first. I think that they knew only what Felt wanted them to know, and when he wanted them to know it. And I’m not even sure they still un­der­stand that.”

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House opens Oct. 13 in Toronto, Van­cou­ver and Mon­treal


Di­rec­tor Peter Lan­des­man, left, talks with Liam Nee­son who plays Mark Felt, the FBI’s sec­ond-in-com­mand who kept the Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion alive while also deal­ing with some per­sonal problems.

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