The name Mark Felt might not strike a chord – replace it with the moniker "Deep Throat," however and watch the imaginary bulb above your head light up. As played by Liam Neeson in a quietly devastating performance, Felt is the 30-year FBI veteran who worked covertly with the press to bring down malfeasance (read: Watergate) in the Nixon White House. That tale was told in the 1976 procedural classic All the President's Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Washington Post muckrakers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But the reporting team is only peripheral to the action in writer-director Peter Landesman's drama, which focuses on the interior life of the whistleblower himself. (It's not subtitled The Man Who Brought Down the White House for nothing.) The lifelong G-man did not publicly confess his identity as Deep Throat until 2005, three years before his death at 95; he claimed the porn-inspired name embarrassed him. What the film, based on books by Felt and John D. O'Connor, lacks in narrative drive it strives to make up for with psychological probing.
When J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, Felt – one of the Bureau honcho's inner circle – assumed he would take the boss's job and use those infamous private files to put the screws to D.C. powerbrokers. Instead, Nixon (unseen in the film) appointed outsider L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) as Acting FBI Director. His anger at being passed over was exceeded only by the fury of his alcoholic wife, Audrey (a simmering Diane Lane), who had previously encouraged her husband to investigate the Weather Underground; she believed their missing daughter, Joan (Maika Monroe), had joined the terrorist group. Alas, the domestic drama serves only to distract from the insider politics that gives the film its pulse.
Ironically, Felt's covert meetings with Woodward (a way too young and green-looking Julian Morris) lack the spark that comes when the Fed contacts an old friend, Time magazine's Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood). The journalist knows something big is up because by-the-book Felt had never leaked him anything over the years. Is the intelligence-agency bureaucrat acting out of revenge on Nixon for dicking him over or out an obligation to stop the FBI from being fatally compromised by executive-branch interference? In Neeson's beautifully calibrated portrayal, both possibilities seem plausible.
Still, the real heat in telling Felt's story for a new generation is how it bounces off what's happening right now: Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, the appointment of the bureau's former chief Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the defections and divided loyalties within the commander-in-chief's own inner circle. The phrase "All the President's Men" takes on fresh urgency in an era that makes us wonder if they'll be a modern-day Felt to bring down the White House. Here's just the movie to keep you guessing.