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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Mark Felt--The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Review: Clearing Deep Throat

Mark Felt--The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Review: Clearing Deep Throat

After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, at age 46, which remains an unresolved conspiracy 53 years later, there was another political event that pinned dirty political tricks on President Richard Nixon around the time of his re-election, and he had to resign soon after being re-elected, in 1974. The Watergate exposé was published by two journalists of the Washington Post and one from Time Magazine, and their source was a top Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official, code-named Deep Throat. Some guessed and some just felt that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, and Peter Landesman has made a film, based on his 2006 biography, co-authored by family lawyer John O’Connor.

Almost everything about this historic burglary has been debated: Was Felt ‘Deep Throat’, in the first place? How much did he leak? What were his motivations? Was his own office bugged? Did he believe the FBI to be above everything and everybody, and were his acts prompted by “A few good men” philosophy? We’ll never know. Felt went senile many years before his death, and all admissions made 30 years or later after Watergate. In one interrogation about FBI matters, Felt mentioned Deep Throat and then turned pale when asked for details. On another occasion, he is reported to have banged the phone down when his confidante at the Post told him that he was being given the name Deep Throat, derived from a 1972 pornographic film.

Three factors work against the movie from the very beginning. Names that could have struck chords in audiences’ memories, albeit after some jogging, like Richard Nixon, Watergate, Deep Throat and FBI, are not part of the title. Mark Felt, a name that even the media might have put into cold storage, is chosen as the title (well, you cannot avoid your lead character\s moniker getting into the title), with a sub-title that talks about bringing the White House down. Secondly, fact is the White House can never be brought down. Some officials can be, and were, and so was the President. And lastly, the whole incident is now dated. Events go back to 1972-74; various books were written on the subject in the interim, and, most filmgoers feel that a definitive and much acclaimed screen version was made way back in 1976, by Robert Redford.

Okay, so the 1976 film was from the point of view of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the present attempt is to narrate the developments from the point of view of Mark Felt. While the earlier film just showed the informant in a shadow and did not reveal his identity, here Felt is Deep Throat from the time he chooses to latch on to the journalists. Mark Felt also takes a deep, long reflective look at his psyche, his psychotic/alcoholic wife and his angst at the running away of his daughter. Above all, he is depicted as a man who cannot get over being bypassed to head the FBI after the death of his mentor, J. Edgar Hoover, and decides to run a parallel regime as Deputy Director. The Watergate Hotel/Apartments break-in, when Nixon’s Republican men were caught trying to plant explosives, cameras and bugs in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, kind of takes us back a farther 12 years, when Democrat John Kennedy had defeated Nixon in the 1961 Presidential elections.

Screenwriter, film director, producer, journalist, novelist and painter Peter Landesman (Parkland—on the Kennedy assassination!, Concussion) is the man at the helm. His take on Felt, “He was really kind of a master puppeteer in that sense. And I was also interested in the complexity of his motivations as a man, as a husband, and as a father. I think early on he was a pragmatist. I think as a human being, he was very private, the G-man’s G-man. I also think he was hurt and outraged when he was overlooked for promotion when J. Edgar Hoover died, and they brought in a guy who was a submarine commander in the Second World War (as the Acting Head of the FBI).”  All this does come through in his screenplay and direction, but not in any compelling or commanding way.

Whereas the obvious comparison would be with All the President’s Men, Landesman’s inspiration seems to have emanated from producer Harry Saltzman spy stories of the 1960s (The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin) as well as the John Le Carré borderline spy thrillers of this century. In Mark Belt, as in Carré, A lot of characters make it difficult to remember who’s who, especially when they do not refer to each other by name.

‘Action’, which is usually symbolised by a phone call or a meeting in a car, alternates with doors opening and closing, people entering and leaving rooms, or being asked to leave, posturing, and making boastful declarations. Yes, one shot, repeated four or five times, lingers: Felt peering out of the Venetian blinds at his unrealised ambitions. He is usually ambivalent, and the only time he expresses any sentiment is when he makes a list of all possible addresses where he could find his daughter, and keeps posting envelopes to each of them. Maybe the lost look is is the beginning of dementia and memory loss, which consumed him in later years.

Liam Neeson is anything if not sincere. That his personality is difficult to fathom is not his fault. Man of Steel, Batman v/s Superman and Trumbo actress Diane Colleen Lane had her troubled orphan childhood mother role severely truncated on the editing table, and that is a pity. Maika Monroe as Joan, Mark and Joan’s daughter, who disappeared in 1972, also gets limited footage. Joan’s life can be the subject of an amazingly interesting tale. She was a drug-addict lefty, and Mark was Hoover's law-and-order enforcer. While he was ordering surveillance on Students for Democratic Society, and the Weathermen (underground organisation suspected of terrorist plans), she was searching for truth and meaning in communal living, free sex and hallucinogens. While he was fielding calls from President Nixon on the hot-line in his home, she was in Chile, hanging out with members of the Salvadore Allende family.

Marton Csokas is cast as Gray and Tom Sizemore plays Sullivan, the bad men who can be spotted miles away, and when Sizemore swaggers and speaks, you wonder whether he is a gang-lord planted as a mole in the FBI. Turns out both are Nixon boys, and we do remember what Nixon looked like, don’t we? Having been a journalist himself (“I've been through a nasty divorce—director Kimberlee Acquaro, God Sleeps in Rwanda. I've reported from three war zones. I've been shot at, threatened by Russian gangsters, chased by Serbs. I've been in car chases in Watts with Bloods and Crips—black blood gangs in San Francisco”), he gets his journos right. Julian Morris as Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter who teamed with Carl Bernstein (married to Nora Ephron, 1976-80, but Harry’ never mentioned the Deep Throat words to his Sally) to expose the Watergate dealings, and Bruce Greenwood as Sandy Smith, Time magazine reporter, come out credible. Sadly, none of the Russian, Serb, Watts Bloods, Crips excitement is anywhere in sight.

One credit must catch the attention of anybody from the Indian sub-continent: editor Tariq Anwar. Born in pre-independence India, his works include Center Stage, The Good Shepherd, Sylvia, Oppenheimer, and American Beauty, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and won two BAFTA Awards. He has also been nominated for an Academy Award for editing The King's Speech. And he came this close to editing Skyfall.

Anwar was born in Delhi, and was raised in Lahore and Bombay. His father was Indian Muslim film actor and director Rafiq Anwar, who’s film Neecha Nagar (1946) brought India its first international prize for Best Film at Cannes. And his uncle, Rashid Anwar, produced the film, which was directed by Chetan Anand.

The ratio of film shot to usage “is very high, something like 50:1, 50 hours for an hour of film,” says Tariq. Ratio apart, Mark Felt is rather slow and classical, even after excessive excisions.

It is an important piece of history. It’s about one of the most famous whistle-blowers in recent memory. It’s deep. It’s an attempt to tell you who he was, what he was and what really happened. It clears the throat. Does it clear history? But what is history, if not perspective?

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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