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A Pretty Shallow Deep Throat

From the cover of Vanity Fair’s July 2005 issue blared this headline: “I’m the Guy They Called Deep Throat.”

The accompanying article, written by a California lawyer named John D. O’Connor, revealed the identity of Bob Woodward’s legendarily anonymous source after “three decades of intense speculation”—and there he was in the Vanity Fair photo, FBI veteran Mark Felt, 91, a white-haired man wearing a jaunty red blazer and looking fit.

But Felt, O’Connor wrote, wasn’t quite as sharp as he used to be, and “his memory for details seems to wax and wane.” Still, “his spine stiffens and his jaw tightens when he talks about the integrity of his dear F.B.I.” And, on occasion, after a glass of wine or two, Felt and his daughter Joan were known to “harmonize in a rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” Felt was, according to O’Connor, “one of America’s greatest secret heroes.”

He expanded this portrait in the 2006 book that became a key source for Peter Landesman’s new film, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. O’Connor’s account largely squares with what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their source in their 1974 bestseller All the President’s Men, which of course served as the basis for Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 hit film. All these years later, Pakula’s All the President’s Men still holds up as a deft if romanticized portrayal of press power in a free society.

In these and other popular accounts that have come down the pike since the night of June 17, 1972, when burglars linked to President Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into the Watergate office complex, Felt himself has been romanticized, too. He’s portrayed as a worldly man of mystery, appearing suddenly in the lives of Woodward and Bernstein to guide their investigation of the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate. Felt, we’re told, never relished this furtive role. He leaked reluctantly because individuals close to the White House had very probably engineered the break-in at the Watergate complex, and Nixon’s men (and Nixon, it turned out) were urgently attempting to cover it up. This was political perfidy of the highest order, he believed, the dark acts of a presidency mad with power. The future of the nation was at stake.

But even before Felt’s self-disclosure in 2005, other writers had identified him as the secretive contact in All the President’s Men. In 1992, for example, the journalist James Mann, writing for the Atlantic, noted that Felt “could well have been” Deep Throat, and that, in all likelihood, he’d been feeding Woodward tips for stories even before the days of Watergate. These carefully placed leaks were crafted to assist the Bureau in specific ways, and were considered fairly routine in a city that runs on information, much of it privileged. Mann, who began his career at the Washington Post, recalls Woodward’s referring more than once to a prized inside source, “my friend at the FBI.”

More recently, in Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (2012), Max Holland portrayed Felt as a fierce bureaucratic infighter in the FBI’s upper ranks using his covert contacts in the press not to bring President Nixon down, but to move himself up—into the director’s chair. J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the FBI for 37 years, had died just seven weeks before the Watergate break-in. And Felt was dismayed when Nixon named L. Patrick Gray III as Hoover’s interim, and possibly permanent, replacement. Gray, an assistant attorney general, had no previous connection to the Bureau. But Felt, a Hoover favorite serving as associate director of the FBI, had spent most of his career there. Dubbed the “White Rat” by his agency rivals, Felt had long been waiting to assume Hoover’s job.

Holland contends convincingly that Felt leaked to the press to make Gray look bad. Gray’s inability to staunch a flow of Watergate-related leaks, Felt figured, would add to the impression that he was in over his head, particularly when placed against the Bureau’s most tested and reliable man, Felt. His motives, in sum, were almost certainly more complicated than the idealistic ones presented in All the President’s Men. He was a loyal organization man but equally devoted to capping his career with one of the nation’s most powerful jobs. Moreover, as other writers on Watergate suggest, he was not the only FBI source supplying “deep background” to reporters, particularly as the weeks passed and the scandal became national news.

As Landesman’s movie begins, it seems as though it will offer a fairly rounded depiction of its title character. As played by Liam Neeson, Felt appears calculating and slightly sinister, a figure not to be trifled with. There’s a scene where he reminds White House counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall) of his longstanding access to Hoover’s notorious secret files—the ones that, he stresses, detail the hidden sexual activities of many of Washington’s most influential men.

Felt also pretends to be supportive of Gray (Marton Csokas), urging the new FBI chief to stay the course on Watergate and to guard the FBI’s investigative independence from the White House.  Gray, though, appears aloof, and remains in contact with Dean. The movie implies that Gray is  Nixon’s plant in the Bureau, tasked with making sure that, in the public mind, Watergate was nothing more than a bungled burglary.

Felt’s suspicions intensify when Gray suddenly orders him to wrap up Watergate as quickly as possible. Seething, Felt seeks out Time magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and starts dropping clues. Smith (whose coverage of Watergate was as consequential as the Post’s, as Holland makes clear) is caught off guard; he pointedly notes that Felt never slipped secrets to him before. But Felt is righteous in his wrath. We see him telling Smith, “I just want the FBI to do its job.” From there it’s a relatively short hop to the Virginia parking garage where, as readers of Woodward and Bernstein’s bestseller will recall, Deep Throat stepped from the shadows with his sensational clues. In Mark Felt he tells Woodward (Julian Morris) to take out his notebook and listen closely. “No one,” he tells the young reporter, “could possibly know all the things I know.”

Those familiar with All the President’s Men will also recall the great unraveling that follows. Thanks to the press, Watergate became a continuous front page story, though this wasn’t until after the election was over. It gathered into a flood of rumors and allegations that led to Senate and House hearings, which led to President Nixon’s battles with two special prosecutors and Judge John Sirica, which led to the President’s resignation on August 9, 1974. But interestingly, in Mark Felt, Deep Throat is on the fringe as Nixon’s administration falters and collapses—the associate director of the FBI resigns abruptly well before then, and we see him receive a plaque and ceremonial handshake from William Ruckelshaus (Jeffrey Dezenski), Nixon’s choice to replace the beleaguered Gray.

Csokas, who made an excellent villain in 2014’s The Equalizer, is much less convincing as the stolid Gray, playing the part with a slight mincing manner and speaking with an oddly cosmopolitan accent that can’t quite conceal his New Zealand roots. In one scene, when Csokas’s Gray remarks, “I was a submarine commander in the navy,” viewers may understandably wonder, “Which one?”

Neeson, though, is even more distractingly off the mark. Fitted with a silvery hairpiece, he does rather resemble Felt, at least from certain angles. Unfortunately, though, he sounds very much like Liam Neeson, particularly when the action, such as it is, requires his speaking with particular agitation or force. Neeson recently announced his decision to retire from the enjoyable action movies, like Taken (2008), that have largely defined his career in recent years. As Felt he’s not breaking much of a sweat, apparently having decided that maintaining the man’s flat, undeniably American accent (he was from Idaho) wasn’t quite worth the bother.

Mark Felt does add a secondary plot involving Felt’s family, his high-strung wife Audrey (Diane Lane) and young adult daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), whose bedroom wall posters suggest support for the antiwar movement and other then-fashionable political causes. Joan has dropped contact with her parents, and Felt fears she may have joined the Weather Underground, whose subversive activities he tracks when he’s not smoking cigarettes and looking pensive, or huddling up with Bob Woodward in a parking garage.

This connects with Felt’s subsequent history. The film’s closing moments have a brief postscript showing him and another FBI official, Edward Miller (Tony Goldwyn), in 1980, going on trial for having illegally surveilled certain members of the Weather Underground and their families during Nixon’s first term. Nixon himself took the stand on the defendants’ behalf. Warrantless searches were, the former President told the court, sometimes necessary against the sort of self-proclaimed revolutionaries who robbed banks, set fires, set off bombs, and stoked riots during the first year of his presidency, causing mayhem and death.

Felt and Miller were found guilty. A year later President Reagan pardoned them, prompting Nixon to send Felt a congratulatory—or perhaps ironic—bottle of champagne.

As Nixon’s secretly recorded White House tapes would later reveal, he knew in mid-October 1972, from chief of staff Bob Haldeman, that Associate FBI Director Mark Felt (not yet known as Deep Throat by anybody but Woodward, Bernstein, and their superiors at the Washington Post) was leaking to the press.

That is an astonishing fact, and one that could have been deployed for dramatic purposes by Landesman. The same goes for that now largely forgotten 1980 trial. From such material the director might well have fashioned a fresher, more relevant film, albeit one more challenging to make than this one. Basically, Mark Felt retells All the President’s Men but without the older film’s sizable budget and all-star cast. Twenty years from now, some viewer may come across it on the cable channel 806 Late Show and find himself thinking, “So, Deep Throat was Irish. Who knew?”

Reader Discussion

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on December 01, 2017 at 11:06:27 am

Good review.

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Paul Binotto

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.