Liam Neeson and dir. Peter Landesman talk <i>Mark Felt</i> and the power of whistleblowers
Liam Neeson as Mark Felt
(Credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

While most truths of the Watergate scandal were uncovered in 1972, some were left shrouded in mystery and secrets. Perhaps most tantalizing was the source, the whistleblower responsible for calling out President Richard Nixon and his administration for conspiring and spying on the Democratic National Committee. The person who lifted the veil on one of the biggest political scandals in history never came forward, and for decades we had only a nickname to call him by, and that’s of course Deep Throat, popularized by the hit porn film that satirized the investigation. In 2005, however, the cultural icon of Deep Throat was no longer relevant as a new name came forward, stepping out of the shadows ready to meet the public’s ready eye: Mark Felt, the man who served as Assistant Deputy Director of the FBI for 30 years, and, of course, during the Watergate scandal.

When Felt spoke to Vanity Fair in 2005 revealing his identity and role in the investigation, journalist-turned-director Peter Landesman (Parkland, Concussion) instantly needed to know more. Why did Felt keep this a secret for so many decades, even after he retired from the FBI? What drove him to whistleblow, revealing classified information and risking his job and the reputation of his agency? In Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Landesman shows us what he discovered through the intimate and complex environment of the man himself, played by a remarkably reserved, yet troubled Liam Neeson, who actually had little idea how deep the lies and coverups actually went.

“I was brought up in the North of Ireland,” Neeson explains. “In ‘71 and ‘72 we were going through our own hellish troubles, political upheaval, so I was very aware of Watergate on the periphery of my imagination… I remember seeing horrible images of the Vietnam War coming through and also something about Watergate, not quite knowing what it was. So when Peter Landesman approached me to be in this it was a whole new learning curve for me, and I was staggered just by how immense Watergate was and just how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary what the FBI did for a start, and these two neophyte journalists, [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, gradually uncovering this exposé of this criminality of the highest order.”

The Woodward and Bernstein Neeson is referring to are the two Washington Post journalists who broke Felt’s intel to the public and who helped keep his identity a secret for so many years. As a whistleblower and a head operative in the FBI, Felt had much at stake in terms of his career. What may be perhaps more surprising to audiences, however, is the complexity of Felt’s home life that kept him torn between secrecy and loyalty, but also drove him to do the right thing and oust his own president.

As Neeson reiterates, “There was very very little known about Mark’s relationship with his wife [played by Diane Lane], with his daughter who he was devoted to, or that his daughter had run off to join a commune. Interesting enough Bob Woodward knew nothing of that aspect of his friend. So it just shows how much Mark Felt was able to compartmentalize his life, and he was trying to do that, of course, by [J. Edgar] Hoover and 30 years in the FBI. That’s what they do, you know? In the interviews I saw, you thought you could see the man, but there was always a screen there.”

That’s why Neeson doesn’t consider Felt a hero, or at least not in a black and white sense. After all, the act of whistleblowing is highly contentious in terms of motives and loyalty to one’s country or agency. Just ask Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. To director Landesman, however, Felt acted on necessity bound with that same idea of loyalty to something greater than his own name.

“To me the full measure of philanthropy is, for instance, building a hospital and not putting your name on it. The true measure of being a whistleblower in the purest sense is to do it and stay anonymous because you’re never making it about you. You’re making it about the outcome, and that’s what Felt was doing,” says Landesman. “History will teach each whistleblower differently, but Felt didn’t want any outcome except one: he just wanted the FBI to be able to continue the investigation and complete the investigation and that was it.”

Considering that our nation is inarguably going through a period of distrust and unrest, Landesman tried to put a brake on making any grand political statements. Yes, Watergate is an important reminder of where we have come from as a nation, but Mark Felt is about the determination of a man trying to keep the standards of his agency and his family in tact, a daunting task for a director dealing with such a huge moment in history.

“If you stay true to character, then politics is tertiary, it’s not even secondary. I don’t care about politics, I don’t care who people vote for. I think that Felt had a mission and I think he had a strong loyalty to his wife and a desperation about his daughter, and at the end of the day it’s the story about a man, not an ideologue.”

While it may be frustrating for some viewers that Mark Felt is less politically charged than they may want as they search for catharsis, rest assured that Landesman and Neeson as a team create a window into the little known world of a little known man who brought justice and truth to the country when it desperately needed it. For that reason, Mark Felt is better than politics--it’s hope.