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‘Mark Felt’: Story of scandal’s Deep Throat a thriller thin on thrills

In “Mark Felt,” Liam Neeson plays an FBI man spilling the beans on the Watergate break-in. | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

In the 1976 Watergate classic “All the President’s Men,” Hal Holbrook played Deep Throat — the man in the shadows feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein that was so explosive it led to the toppling of the Nixon presidency.

More than 40 years later, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” tells the Watergate story from the point of view of that man in the shadows, shining the spotlight squarely on the straitlaced, career FBI man who, well, brought down the White House, as the title explains.

This is a Liam Neeson thriller with no gunplay, no exotic international locations, no crackling dialogue with Neeson explaining he has a very particular set of skills. Oh, he’s on the phone a lot, but it’s mostly to spill the beans to the press about the toxic river of crimes and cover-ups racing through the Nixon White House.

Sporting silver-gray hair and makeup with a pallor giving the impression he might be icy to the touch, Neeson gives a tightly controlled and quietly effective performance as Felt, the No. 2 man to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI in the early 1970s.

Even by the standards of the FBI, Felt was considered to be an overly stiff, humorless company man. Even his fits of passion were the stuff of G-man movies. He was given to proclamations such as, “The god—- punks are running this country!”

When Hoover died in 1972, Felt and his fiercely supportive wife Audrey (Diane Lane) assumed it was finally Felt’s time to become the director of the FBI. After a lifetime of transfers and new assignments, moving from city to city and house to house a dozen times, all the sacrifice was about to pay off.

And then Nixon named L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) to the job. Gray was a well-respected and decorated Naval officer with some experience in the Department of Justice, but to the FBI he was an outsider with no experience. Felt was crushed.

As “Mark Felt” frames things, Felt’s bitterness at having been passed over for the job was an important motivating factor in Felt’s decision to blow the whistle on the White House. To be sure, he was appalled by the corruption within the Nixon administration — but he was also royally ticked off about not getting the top job at the FBI.

Felt suspects Gray of being a mole for the White House. He becomes even more incensed when Gray brings in a slimy former FBI agent (Tom Sizemore) who did some of Hoover’s dirtiest dirty work over the years.

We get brief glimpses of Felt meeting in the shadows with Bob Woodward (Julian Morris), but much more time is devoted to Felt feeding information to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) in broad daylight. Felt starts spilling the beans and Smith’s eyes widen as he takes out his notebook and starts scribbling away.

“Mark Felt” has the trappings of a taut thriller, but still, there’s something slow-footed about much of the proceedings. Once in a while we get a scene that pops, as when a couple dozen FBI agents gather in a room and try to suss out who’s leaking details of the Watergate investigation to the press. But it seems as if even the filmmakers know they have to spice up the story, so there’s a substantial subplot about Felt’s home life.

Audrey’s drinking goes well beyond social imbibing on the D.C. cocktail circuit. She’s a deeply unhappy woman who confesses to Mark she never really connected with their daughter Joan in the manner of most mothers.

As for the teenage Joan, she’s been missing for more than a year and might have joined the terrorist Weather Underground — the very organization Felt was targeting. (Felt was eventually found guilty of ordering illegal break-ins of the homes of suspected Weather Underground members and their relatives.) The Watergate conspiracy storyline takes a back seat to the family melodrama, with Felt using his FBI resources to track down and reunite with Joan. It’s all competently executed, but we’re a long way from the whole “Man Who Brought Down the White House” story when Mark is slogging through a muddy commune in search of his daughter.

Writer-director Peter Landesman shades “Mark Felt” in shadowy tones that accurately reflect the tenor of the story and the times. In fact, “Mark Felt” is so pinpoint-accurate in laying out the timeline of this particularly story, we almost never think about any parallels to the real-world potential scandals simmering in and around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in present day. This is a paint-by-numbers procedural that expects the audience to know the history of Watergate, hits the ground running—but then feels more like a steady jog through the past than a fast-paced thriller.

★★1⁄2

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Peter Landesman. Rated PG-13 (for some language). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.