TELLING DEEP THROAT’S SIDE OF WATERGATE
Private FBI G-man was also seen as ‘master puppeteer’
The Irish actor Liam Neeson and American writer/director Peter Landesman come from different worlds, but they are of like minds in how they wanted to tell the “Deep Throat” version of the Watergate story.
Neeson, 65, has been an actor for nearly four decades but his films have mostly been in the fantasy and adventure realms, rarely political.
Landesman, 52, is a journalist and filmmaker who has made traumatic American history his cinematic specialty. Parkland, his 2013 debut, went into the Dallas hospital where John F. Kennedy breathed his last.
Concussion, released in 2015, starred Will Smith as the doctor who controversially found links between NFL players and chronic head injuries. Now Neeson and Landesman have combined for Mark Felt — The Man Who Brought Down the White House, the story of the top FBI G-man who secretly helped journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
Neeson plays Felt, alias “Deep Throat,” who kept his covert identity secret for decades, finally coming out of the shadows in 2005, three years before his death at age 95.
Landesman writes and directs the film, adapting Felt’s published memoirs. As they sit together for a Toronto Star interview during TIFF 2017, they talk of how they didn’t want to tell the same old version of the Watergate saga:
It seems you both wanted to steer clear of the All the President’s Men version of Watergate, by showing more of what happened inside FBI ranks rather than the clandestine parking garage meetings between Deep Throat and Bob Woodward, who is barely seen in your film.
Landesman: It wasn’t avoidance. I was telling the story of Felt, through his prism and his subjectivity. And as seen through that window, I think the film represents its entirety. Woodward was just one of four reporters Felt was talking to; he was manipulating them all with different pieces of information. Lighting fuses and seeing which bomb goes off first. He was really kind of a master puppeteer in that sense. And I was also interested in the complexity of his motivations as a man, as a husband and as a father. So given that, Bob Woodward was actually never on his mind. So it wasn’t going to be on my mind. Unless it served his narrative.
Neeson: In reality, Felt and Woodward only met in that garage about six or seven times. And I thought it was lovely that Peter cast a young British actor (Julian Morris) as Bob Woodward. I love the fact he’s kind of young — he’s almost a kid. Bob Woodward was 29 when he met Felt, and I loved that fact that he’s just this little young kid eager for this news. Do you think Felt was acting as an idealist or a pragmatist when he decided to blow the whistle on Richard Nixon’s rotten regime? Neeson: I think early on he was a pragmatist. I think as a human being, he was very private, the G-man’s G-man. I also think he was hurt and out- raged when he was overlooked for promotion when J. Edgar Hoover died, and they brought in a guy who was a submarine commander in the Second World War. That may have provoked him to start leaking stuff to Bob Woodward, but then when Felt saw the bigger picture of what was happening, the level of corruption and where it was going, he felt “I’ve got to see this through.” The future of the FBI — and possibly the future of the country — was at stake. And then he became heroic.
Landesman: I think Felt had an ideological belief system of the bureau as a kind of mythological defence, the last line of defence. He loved Elliot Ness and he loved that concept of himself as a G-man. So there is a kind of idealism there about good and evil, white hat and black hat, that ultimately with all the other motivations at the core was driving him.
Liam, what’s your ultimate take on the man behind the Deep Throat legend?
Neeson: He was quite remarkable by any standards. This whole personal side of his life with his wife — Bob Woodward, correct me if I’m wrong, knew nothing about that. He also knew nothing about Felt’s daughter running away and Felt trying to find her. Bob Woodward knew nothing about that. So Felt was able to compartmentalize his life — he was trained that way, too, of course. It’s why he was such a successful FBI agent, from the Second World War on. Quite remarkable.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Tom Bernard, left, Brian d’Arcy James, Peter Landesman, Liam Neeson, Julian Morris and Michael Barker attend the Mark Felt premiere in New York City.