Watergate more dramatic in real life than on screen
In most movies, a character like Mark Felt — a high-ranking FBI informant known to the world for decades only as Deep Throat — would be the surprise twist in the final act.
Here, history has already unmasked the mystery man, so what pleasure there is to be had comes from watching him turn from keeper of secrets to spiller of same.
So why is the resulting film so dry?
Writer-director Peter Landesman (Parkland, Concussion) is working from Felt’s own autobiography, which may be part of the problem.
In respecting the arc of the man’s life, he may have jettisoned too many of the rules of good narrative. Certainly, the drama of a wayward daughter (Maika Monroe) and a concerned wife (Diane Lane) can only be a distraction when you’re Bringing Down the White House.
The story opens on April 11, 1972 — 203 days before the 1972 presidential election, we’re told, although that kind of tickingclock suspense will soon be forgotten. More importantly, it turns out, we’re just three weeks away from the death of J. Edgar Hoover.
When the founding director of the FBI died after almost
40 years in the office, the resulting power vacuum was hurricane-force.
Immediately, agents took to burning and/or shredding Hoover’s most secret files. But while that kind of scorched-earth policy had been planned, succession was less certain.
Within a day, then U.S. president Richard Nixon had
appointed outsider L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) to lead the bureau. Felt (Liam Neeson), a 30-year FBI veteran, became his second in command.
A little knowledge of Watergate history is helpful to viewers. Landesman doesn’t waste time with onscreen identifiers, although we do see the odd nameplate on a door or desk.
We’re expected to keep up with the players, including Michael C. Hall as White House counsel John Dean, Josh Lucas as the bureau’s Washington chief, and Bruce Greenwood as Time magazine’s Sandy Smith, a journalist with a nose for sniffing out political scandal.
In the end, Felt’s real story is more exciting — or at least potentially so — than the version that plays out on the screen. Even the parking garage where he met The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (a milquetoast Julian Morris) feels underplayed given its historical importance. One almost suspects some kind of coverup at play. Or maybe Felt’s involvement is just too big to cover in an hour and three quarters.
All the President’s Men had an extra half an hour — and didn’t even have to deal with Hoover.