Q&A: Liam Neeson Brings Down White House as Deep Throat in ‘Mark Felt'

WASHINGTON — Imagine “All the President’s Men” from the perspective of Deep Throat.

That’s the idea behind writer/director Peter Landesman’s new political biopic “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” which hits select theaters nationwide on Friday.

“When he confessed to being Deep Throat, I was in Chicago and called my agent desperate to write the movie,” Landesman told WTOP. “I was an investigative reporter for New York Times magazine, so Deep Throat, Watergate, ‘All the President’s Men’ was a living mythology for me.”

The film follows Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), the FBI’s No. 2 authority under J. Edgar Hoover before becoming an anonymous whistle blower as “Deep Throat.” Sensing corruption by the Nixon administration, Felt held covert meetings in parking garages to help journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post expose the Watergate scandal in 1974.

His persona entered pop-culture lore in Woodward & Bernstein’s 1974 book “All the President’s Men,” followed by Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film of the same name starring Robert Redford, Carl Bernstein, James Robards and Hal Holbrook with a script by William Goldman.

“I’ve watched it dozens of times,” Landesman said. “It’s one of the iconic films with some iconic performances. The director is someone I admire enormously. It’s the knowable mythology of Watergate, it’s just not all true and not the only way to understand the story. … [Felt] was using reporters right and left. He was talking to at least four of them; Woodward was just on. They published a book and had a great film first, so that became the standard bearer.”

He insists that “Mark Felt” is a completely different type of film.

“It actually bares no relationship to ‘All the President’s Men.” That’s like saying ‘Schindler’s List’ is World War II from the point of the camps instead of ‘Where Eagles Dare.'”

Speaking of Schindler, actor Liam Neeson fits the role perfectly.

“There was a version 10 years ago when I started writing where Tom Hanks was going to play Felt, but Liam’s integrity as an artist, his bearing, the characters he’s chosen, his physicality was really just perfect,” Landesman said. “He’s the only person I went to ultimately.”

It’s fascinating to watch Neeson’s secret-keeping face as FBI colleagues (Marton Csokas, Tom Sizemore) gather the agents in a room, trying to get the “rat” to confess.

“We talked about it a lot, how to be a spy in your own shop and lay covering fire by throwing other people under the bus,” Landesman said. “His motivation was always about saving the greater good. There’s no question he sacrificed others; it’s one of the reasons the FBI doesn’t like him. But they don’t understand the totality of his motivations and what he was up against.”

Best of all is Neeson’s habit of tapping his pen, a metaphor to bring down the house of cards.

“That was the operating principle of the movie,” Landesman said. “If you tap on something long enough with the same rhythm, the molecules that make it up begin to dissemble and come apart. So if you tap on something long enough, if you disrupt it, try to bring it down, interrupt it, distract it, you can eventually destroy an institution, just like you can destroy a bridge.”

As a 30-year veteran of the bureau, Felt takes pride in the FBI’s role as an independent agency.

“The U.S. government is a very complex but delicately designed machine,” Landesman said. “If the system is allowed to function, if the institutions are allowed to do their job, it actually works, there’s checks and balances, the good guys win, the bad guys get caught, corruption gets stopped. All Felt wanted was for the machine to be allowed to do its job, apolitically.”

So what exactly drove him to become the biggest whistle blower in American history?

“He thought Nixon was corrupt, he thought the White House was manipulative, and he thought they were trying to turn the FBI into a personal KGB-type machine,” Landesman said. “All he wanted was the FBI to be left alone to do its job. … When the White House pulled the plug on the FBI’s investigation, that’s when he betrayed the code of honor of leaking information in order to save the FBI. So one could say he was a traitor, but a traitor to save the nation.”

Watching the intra-agency struggle on screen, it’s hard not to think of President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey amid the bureau’s probe into Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election (the move invited special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation).

“The dynamic of David vs. Goliath, corruption at the top and integrity at the bottom, is enduring for a reason,” Landesman said. “We find this dynamic all over the place all the time. … History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. That’s because human nature doesn’t change.”

While Felt fights for the soul of the nation on one level, he simultaneously grapples with personal strife from his missing daughter and alcoholic wife (Diane Lane). Lane’s performance recalls Mary Tyler Moore’s Oscar-nominated role in “Ordinary People” (1980), as Lane says, “Mothers don’t hate their daughters,” just like Moore said, “Mothers don’t hate their sons!”

“Felt wasn’t just about Watergate; he was also a husband and a father,” Landesman said. “He had a very combustible, alcoholic wife [and] a daughter who had vanished and joined the counter culture. He was terrified that she joined the Weather Underground. I was interested as much in him as a father and husband trying desperately to keep his world together as I was about an FBI agent trying to do his job. … I couldn’t tell one part of the story without the other.”

Through it all, you’ll notice a blue tint hovering over countless shots of D.C. monuments.

“I wanted to shoot the monuments in ways, angles and directions we’ve never seen them before … usually through the window of a moving car,” Landesman said. “There aren’t the postcard shots; not one of them. They’re always from the point of view of somebody jogging across the bridge over the Potomac; there are shots of the Washington Monument but through trees and fog. I wanted the Washington in the movie to be lived-in, mundane and everyday, not magisterial.”

It all builds to a final freeze frame where he almost reveals his “Deep Throat” identity while giving testimony for unconstitutional break-ins against the Weather Underground.

“I wanted to end on a moment that Felt himself had lost control, where he had inadvertently confessed to being Deep Throat,” Landesman said. “I loved the idea of ending on the moment before he says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so there’s suspense. There’s actually quite a bit more to the scene that we cut. He [originally] said ‘no’ and the prosecutor ran up to him and said, ‘Perjury is a Class A felony and if you just perjured yourself, I’m going to convict you.”

Why did Felt hold onto the secret for so long? Was it due to legal concerns?

“Not at all; in fact, he could have been a hero. He could have worn the mantle of ‘hero’ for years. No, I I think he did it for the right reasons. He didn’t want credit and he didn’t want notoriety and I think he felt a little ashamed of having betrayed the FBI’s code of conduct.”

Why did he ultimately come out to Vanity Fair in 2005?

“I think he wanted his family to enjoy the legacy,” Landesman said. “I think he knew he was toward the end of his life and he had grandchildren and he had a daughter who he loved. I think that he wanted them to know what he as a man had done and had left behind.”

In the end, what is that legacy he leaves behind?

“With the power of integrity and anonymous integrity, you’re able to do remarkable, superhuman, heroic things, but you don’t have to wear a tight, superhero cape to do it.”

Yes, when it comes to brave whistle blowers, the truth holds the trump card.

Click here for more on the film. Listen to our full chat with writer/director Peter Landesman below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Peter Landesman (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

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The post Q&A: Liam Neeson brings down White House as Deep Throat in ‘Mark Felt’ appeared first on WTOP.

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