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Film review: ‘Mark Felt’

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As deputy associate director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, career G-Man Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) always believed himself to be next in line for the top job. But after Hoover’s death, he was passed over and forced to remain on as second-in-command. Then, Nixon’s White House became embroiled in the Watergate scandal just six weeks later.

Felt is the focus of the somber “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” a plodding procedural thriller that follows the actions of the man eventually known as Deep Throat — the infamous whistleblower and anonymous source to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Written and directed by former journalist Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Concussion”), “Mark Felt” is about a lone figure who ends up stymied when tasked with holding the Oval Office accountable for its corruption and potentially criminal actions. This lends the film some inadvertently timely parallels, but ones Landesman’s script fails to fully exploit.

Following orders from on high, Felt’s new boss, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) orders him to ease off on his investigation. The film suggests that Felt’s decision to become an informant may have been based on an upright sense of duty and obligation to his country, but also because he’s a little bit bitter about being passed over for a job he’d believed was his.

There’s also a subplot about his troubled marriage, and a missing teenage daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture. As Felt’s wife, Audrey, Diane Lane gets little to do aside from look exasperated and drink heavily, and she’s not done any favors by the film’s portrayal of Audrey as a cold mother who all but drove the couple’s daughter away.

Neeson broods with the best of them, and he delivers a fine performance. As do Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, and Brian D’Arcy James, playing Felt’s trusted FBI colleagues. But the film’s plodding pacing and Landesman’s insistence on spelling everything out through clunky exposition — most egregious example: “This is dangerous stuff, especially if it’s known before November 7th.” “That’s Election Day!” — robs the film of any sense of immediacy or tension. It seems to indicate he doesn’t much trust his audience, and the resulting film can’t help but suffer in comparison to the 1976 masterpiece “All the President’s Men.”

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