Liam Neeson - all 6 foot 5 inches of him with shoulders as wide as North Carolina - doesn't throw anyone across the room in "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought the White House Down." You can practically hear echoes of his sighs of relief from here.
I had a weird reaction to the movie. After an hour of everyone conniving, spying, backstabbing and befouling civic life in Washington D. C. in the name of purity, I half expected a cross-eyed Mel Brooks from "Blazing Saddles"as Governor LePetomane to show up, waggle his head for emphasis and say "we've got to protect our phony baloney jobs gentlemen."
Mark Felt, who outed himself as Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat" in Vanity Fair before his death, did not have a phony baloney job at the FBI. He was the No. 2 man to J. Edgar Hoover, the director of operations, the G-Man's G-Man.
But here's what that meant as he tells us very early on in Peter Landesman's film: he was the guy who gathered all the obscene and scurrilous information about the famous and powerful from the field and passed it on to Hoover for his private files, which were, according to fable, the greatest repository of potential extortion info that America had ever seen. Felt gathered up all the juiciest stuff about who was sleeping with whom, who had funky friends and errant tastes and passed it all along in morning packets to Hoover, who savored and saved the best.
Neeson, as Felt, tells us that at the outset.
But then, Hoover--as all men and lizards must--eventually dies. And "the G-man to end all G-men" doesn't succeed him as expected, L. Patrick Gray does. Felt remains the director of operations.
And what we watch for the rest of the film is a kind of viper's nest of bureaucratic hell, with backroom manipulations and espionage and tales told out of school by everyone out for themselves. These are not "phoney baloney jobs" but as you watch more than half of "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House," it's all so venal and underhandedly ugly that it almost seems as if they are.
And this is where the movie becomes its own worst enemy.
The title tells us that we're getting the range of the Whistleblower to End All Whistleblowers. The real Felt was a key figure in getting the Washington Post's Woodstein "following the money" to where Nixon couldn't hide from impending impeachment.
We expect a kind of cinematic companion piece to "All the President's Men."
What we get is an advanced treatise on the rankness of Washington bureaucracy where optimal progress is impossible for a government agency because of metaphorical blood and gore all over the floor. So when Felt tells tales out of school to Time magazine, you have a hard time admiring him for it.
You'll notice that the cast here is rather amazing. Neeson is awfully good as Felt, Diane Lane plays his wife, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood and Noah Wyle play smaller roles. I'm sure they all thought they were making a companion piece to "All the President's Men." Instead, it often seems like slime that thinks it's history. When the major slimeball is played by Sizemore showing up in the most absurd clashing checked '70s Polyester outfit ever filmed, he could be the clown Pennywise in "It."
Landesman did fine work in "Concussion," a film in which the former high-dome journalist-now-filmmaker, never lost the plot. It exposed the hazard of NFL football players with pitiless truth. Here, he seems to lose all track of Richard Nixon to tell the story of a bitter, conniving passed-over bureaucrat.
"Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House"
Two stars out of four
Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas and Michael C. Hall in Peter Landesman's tale of the FBI operations chief who was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's informant called "Deep Throat." 103 minutes. Rated PG-13.)