The Real Hero of Water­gate

MARK FELT IS ABOUT THE FBI AGENT WHO TOOK DOWN PRES­I­DENT NIXON—THE REAL HERO OF WATER­GATE

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THE STAN­DARD Water­gate nar­ra­tive goes like this: Two young Wash­ing­ton Post re­porters take down the pres­i­dent of the United States with the help of a wacko gov­ern­ment source co­de­named Deep Throat who likes to meet se­cretly in un­der­ground park­ing garages.

Wrong, says for­mer jour­nal­ist Peter Lan­des­man, the writer and di­rec­tor of Mark Felt, a pow­er­ful new film about the secret FBI source who led Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein to the larger story of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon’s dirty tricks be­hind the Water­gate break-in.

“It’s one of the great­est films of all time,” grants Lan­des­man, speak­ing of All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, the 1976 film based on the Wood­ward and Bern­stein book of the same name. “And it’s an im­por­tant book. It’s just not the whole truth.”

Lan­des­man’s film, the third he has writ­ten and directed (in­clud­ing 2015’s Con­cus­sion), aims to set the record straight, and it pro­vides Liam Nee­son with his best role to date. Nee­son plays FBI lifer Felt, the bureau’s then–sec­ond in

com­mand, the guy who al­most sin­gle­hand­edly forced Nixon to re­sign on Au­gust 9, 1974. “And noth­ing was ever the same in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics,” says Lan­des­man. Newsweek talked with him about that and much more.

I agree with you that the mythol­ogy of Wood­ward and Bern­stein and The Wash­ing­ton Post tak­ing down Nixon needs a cor­rec­tion. A Demo­cratic-con­trolled Congress and the role of Felt and the FBI de­serve equal if not more billing.

That’s tak­ing noth­ing away from Carl or Bob. I think Bob, es­pe­cially, ap­pre­ci­ates the fact that it wasn’t only about them. They know that. They’d be the first to say it. But, you know, look, the power of Hol­ly­wood, es­pe­cially the star power of the big­gest movie star in the world at the time [Robert Red­ford, who played Wood­ward], that in it­self cre­ates a life and a mythol­ogy of its own. Once the book and the movie came out, other peo­ple in the Water­gate [in­ves­ti­ga­tion] re­al­ized it was point­less to raise their hand and tell their story.

There are ob­vi­ous com­par­isons to be made be­tween the Water­gate leaks and the skul­dug­gery go­ing on now. Did Don­ald Trump’s rise in­spire the film in any way?

I started on this right af­ter Felt con­fessed [to be­ing Deep Throat] in 2005, fin­ished the screen­play in 2008 and shot and wrapped the film be­fore last year’s Repub­li­can Con­ven­tion. So the co­in­ci­dence is su­per­nat­u­ral. It does con­firm that hu­man be­hav­ior doesn’t change. There’s al­ways go­ing to be some level of cor­rup­tion and rot at the top, and there’s al­ways go­ing to be some­body with in­tegrity and self-sacri­fice at the bot­tom who’s will­ing to do the right thing at his own peril.

Does Jim Comey, the FBI di­rec­tor Trump fired, re­mind you of Felt?

I know Jim a lit­tle bit. Jim, to me, dis­played the same kind of in­tegrity that Felt does. While I don’t agree with every­thing Comey did, I do be­lieve he was well in­ten­tioned. Like Felt, he al­ways in­tended to be pro­tect­ing the FBI. And Comey was sim­i­larly beloved in­side the FBI. The dif­fer­ence, of course, is the anonymity [of Felt] ver­sus [Comey] show­ing up at a com­mit­tee hear­ing and telling the world.

Comey did leak the notes of his meet­ings with Trump.

Yes, but I don’t think even he thought that was go­ing to be kept a secret—not th­ese days, right? There’s com­plete trans­parency. You can’t get away with any­thing. To me, the true sign of phi­lan­thropy or hero­ism is build­ing a build­ing and not put- ting your name on it. Felt’s anonymity is proof of his self­less­ness. I think he was ashamed that he be­trayed the FBI’S code of con­fi­den­tial­ity, but he knew he did it in the name of the greater good. I be­lieve Comey felt the same. I’m a huge fan of his. I hope he’s go­ing to run for pres­i­dent.

Re­ally? Pres­i­dent?

I think Comey’s con­sid­er­ing run­ning for of­fice in Vir­ginia in a cou­ple years and then the nom­i­na­tion two years af­ter that.

What makes this film rel­e­vant for peo­ple who weren’t alive dur­ing Water­gate?

The story of self-sacri­fice and in­tegrity is uni­ver­sal and timeless. The myth of David ver­sus Go­liath en­dures for a rea­son, and I can’t think of a bet­ter David than Felt—as op­posed to Ed­ward Snowden or [Wik­ileaks founder Ju­lian] As­sange, who’s a so­ciopath. Th­ese are guys who are play­ing God. They’re not whistle­blow­ers; they’re sow­ers of chaos. Re­leas­ing un­medi­ated in­for­ma­tion—data and in­for­ma­tion are not nar­ra­tive; they don’t tell a story. They just send out ones and ze­ros that al­low any­body to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive. Felt leaked the in­for­ma­tion in a way that would cre­ate the nar­ra­tive that would lead the re­porters to the White House. He was a very dif­fer­ent kind of whistle­blower.

What was your rea­son for mak­ing the film, and for fo­cus­ing on Felt?

I’m an old in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter for The New York Times Mag­a­zine. I used to write long in­ves­tiga­tive cover sto­ries, and for one of them I went back and re-re­ported Water­gate, with ac­cess to new FBI ma­te­rial and to Felt’s peo­ple. I sat down with Ed Miller, Felt’s right-hand man [played by Tony Gold­wyn], in Wash­ing­ton. He looked at me and said, “You know, Water­gate is re­ally a love story.”

I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” He says, “Well, Mark Felt was as mo­ti­vated by his fam­ily, his wife—his Lady Mac­bethian, al­co­holic fire­brand of a wife—and his miss­ing daugh­ter. Mark Felt is a com­pli­cated man and an emo­tional man and a man of enor­mous dis­tress.”

That’s when the movie be­came clear to me. I re­al­ized all I had to do is look at this new li­brary of in­for­ma­tion through the key­hole of Felt’s very sub­jec­tive point of view. I got in­side the heart and mind of the man who had, in many ways, been more re­spon­si­ble for chang­ing the course of Amer­i­can his­tory than maybe any sin­gle one per­son. It was a ver­sion of Water­gate that no­body had ever seen be­fore.

One thing sur­prised me. You give the in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Sandy Smith, then of Time mag­a­zine, as much or more of a role than Bob Wood­ward. What’s that about?

Smith was a con­tem­po­rary of Felt’s. They con­sid­ered each other to be col­leagues and friends. Felt had been talk­ing to him for prob­a­bly 10 years, though never on the record. J. Edgar Hoover [the long­time FBI di­rec­tor] had re­ally looked the other way and al­lowed Felt to man­age the me­dia in this way. [Hoover died a month be­fore the Water­gate break-in, and Nixon placed a straw man above Felt to con­trol the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.] Wood­ward was a rookie, and Felt was like a cat with a ball of yarn; he could ma­nip­u­late and nudge him around re­ally eas­ily. Wood­ward was just one of a num­ber of peo­ple Felt was in con­stant touch with about leaks.

In many ways, Smith’s work, which was not as di­rectly Water­gate-re­lated, was as im­por­tant, and cer­tainly the last push. It was af­ter Jan­uary [1973]. Nixon had won re-elec­tion, and he looked like he was go­ing to get away with [the Water­gate coverup]. Felt went to Smith and dropped the wire­tap story that’s in the movie. That was the story that forced L. Pa­trick Gray [the Nixon-nom­i­nated act­ing FBI di­rec­tor af­ter Hoover] to fall apart in [his con­fir­ma­tion] hear­ings. Felt knew Gray was weak, that he would fold and give up John Dean [Nixon’s White House lawyer], and that it would lead back to the Water­gate files [that Gray had given Dean]. It was a bril­liant piece of mis­di­rec­tion. He used Smith to do it, not Wood­ward, prob­a­bly be­cause Wood­ward was not so­phis­ti­cated enough, and not in as deep in Wash­ing­ton.

Yeah, I was sur­prised that you por­trayed Gray’s melt­down in the com­mit­tee hear­ing as the piv­otal mo­ment.

There are a lot of piv­otal mo­ments, and by no means is this movie a com­pen­dium about Water­gate. But in the nar­ra­tive of Mark Felt and his re­la­tion­ship with Nixon, it was the piv­otal mo­ment, the cli­max of his ef­forts. It was his last-ditch ef­fort to man­age the [Nixon] ad­min­is­tra­tion enough that it could crum­ble from the in­side. There’s that op­er­at­ing metaphor that he gives Smith, about the rhythm of things and how mol­e­cules as­sem­ble and elec­trons dis­sem­ble. Felt un­der­stood in­sti­tu­tions, un­der­stood what would hap­pen if he kept the pres­sure up.

Did you learn any­thing new about Water­gate in your re­search?

Every­thing I’ve just said is brand-new to me. But I also learned that Felt was prob­a­bly iden­ti­fied by peo­ple within the FBI. There’s that scene where Felt’s un­der­ling, Char­lie Bates [Josh Lucas], fig­ured it out. Felt is lay­ing cov­er­ing fire every­where, in­clud­ing tak­ing down some of his own peo­ple—which is in some sense heart­less, but in the other sense, it’s for the greater good. He would have done any­thing to pro­tect the FBI from the re­turn of Bill Sul­li­van [an in­fa­mously cor­rupt agent and Nixon loy­al­ist, played by Tom Size­more]. Sul­li­van rep­re­sented every­thing bad in Wash­ing­ton as far as Felt was con­cerned.

When I first read about the cast­ing of Nee­son as Felt, I thought, Oh no, he’s all wrong. But he nails the guy. How did you come to pick him?

Liam’s in­tegrity as a man is, to me, sim­i­lar to Felt’s. As an artist too: He played Oskar Schindler, another guy who was flawed and com­plex and did the right thing at his own peril. And he looked the part. Felt’s daugh­ter thought Liam re­ally cap­tured her fa­ther.

You de­scribe Felt’s wife, Au­drey—who is played by Diane Lane, su­perbly—as be­ing in­te­gral to find­ing your way into this story.

Felt was in servi­tude to that mar­riage. He was re­ally in love with her but had no way to con­trol her. This was the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. She was prob­a­bly bipo­lar—cer­tainly an al­co­holic. A man like that, as pow­er­ful as he was, was pow­er­less against her fe­roc­ity and ob­vi­ous men­tal ill­ness. She drove their daugh­ter out of the house, to run away to a com­mune. She even­tu­ally killed her­self with Mark’s FBI gun.

I find her cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing him. That mar­riage—all th­ese pow­er­ful men have mar­riages that de­fine what they are and what they be­come.

Mark Felt: The Un­told Story of the Man Who Took Down the White House opens Septem­ber 29.

MAK­ING AMER­ICA GREAT AGAIN: Nee­son, left, as Mark Felt, who was in­ter­viewed on Face the Na­tion in 1976, be­low, 29 years be­fore he re­vealed that he was Deep Throat.

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