The film dives through the Looking Glass of America’s most important journalistic moment, the unveiling of the anonymous source, Deep Throat.
For three decades, the identity of “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate coverage, was one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of American politics.
Numerous possible candidates were put forward, but aside from Woodward and a few others, no one knew the answer until July, 2005, when it was revealed to be Mark Felt, a former #2 man at the FBI. While the world now had a name and a face, this knowledge only raised additional questions.
Who was Mark Felt and what motivated him? Why did a man who sat at the top of an institution built on confidentiality, decide to reveal secrets?
These were even bigger mysteries, whose solutions held the key to how this country emerged from the nightmare of Watergate.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The Whitehouse is based on a true story of the most famous anonymous man in American history: Mark Felt, the FBI second-in-command who was the “Deep Throat” whistleblower in the 1970s Watergate scandal.
The identity of the secret informant remained a source of intense public curiosity and speculation for over thirty years, until Felt revealed himself through an article in Vanity Fair in 2005.
While his name has been public for a decade, few know about the personal and professional life of the brilliant and uncompromising Felt, who risked and ultimately sacrificed everything, including his family, career, and ultimately his freedom, to bring what he knew to light.
Mark Felt shows us Watergate as we’ve never seen it before, flipping the perspective from All the President’s Men’s journalists-on-the-street to a view from the highest offices of power, an extraordinary window into a government in turmoil. The story of far-reaching White House corruption, of which the Watergate break-in was only a lone example.
As current events strike startling parallels to the political turmoil of the Watergate era— including power struggles between the executive branch and the FBI, evidence of election dirty tricks, and renewed White House challenges to the veracity of the media—Mark Felt’s story could not be more timely.
Writing the Screenplay
Writer/director Peter Landesman (Parkland, Concussion) was hired to write the screenplay for Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The Whitehouse in 2005, before he had directed any movies, when he was known as an award-winning investigative journalist and war correspondent.At that time, Jay Roach (Trumbo, Meet The Parents) was set to direct.
Some stories simply call out to you. I was a former investigative reporter and war correspondent in Chicago the day Vanity Fair broke the identity of Deep Throat. It was July 2005. Nixon had resigned in 1973.
Woodward and Bernstein, and the infamous source on Nixonian corruptions himself, had kept the name a secret for more than thirty years. When Mark Felt outed himself, you could feel anticlimax in the air, almost a disappointment.
Felt wasn’t sexy. He wasn’t a celebrity. A life-long FBI man, the infantry of law enforcement. I’d never even heard of him, but I knew one thing for sure: the seeming banality of the true identity of Deep Throat was going to end up being precisely why Felt was one of the great stories of our time.
Who the hell was this guy to step into the breach revealing a president’s sins, and corruptions?
Who did this anonymous “ditch-digger” think he was to help change the course of history?
I called my agent from Chicago. I instructed her to do whatever it took to get me in the room with the producers hiring the screenwriter to write this movie. (I hadn’t yet started directing.) I was going to visit Felt, and then I was going to Washington, to find out not just who this guy was, and how he pulled this off, but why. When I found out why, I was floored. Politics barely had a thing to do with it. It was principle, and it came at the steepest possible price – his career, all his friendships, his wife’s life, and his future. He had self-immolated in the quiet dark and no one knew. Woodward knew how he did it, obviously, and as a filmmaker I wanted to tell the world why.
Lifer lawman discovers corruptions emanating from the highest office in the land, does all he can to investigate, is gagged by orders to implicitly join the cover-up, faces the moral crisis of a man built to defend truth and justice, ultimately chooses to sacrifice all he knows and stands for in the name of a higher calling.
Felt became to me an object of honor. I related personally to all of this, and owe him the debt of his story. We all do.
The film dives through the Looking Glass of America’s most important journalistic moment, the unveiling of the anonymous source, Deep Throat. Felt had a lot more going on at the time than just Watergate. His story is mythic
“Peter had written some really interesting long articles on sex trafficking and arms dealing, and had the journalistic ability to relate with his subjects and connect to what mattered to them,” says Roach. “I felt that because he had such good instincts about what drives people, what the obstacles were in their life story, that he was going to be able to translate that into writing a great screenplay.” Says Landesman: “In my worldview, events are not about history—events are about human beings. I’m fascinated by people under pressure and in crisis, and what happens to them and what they do.”
Using Felt’s books The FBI Pyramid and A G-Man’s Life (written with John O’Connor) as foundational material, Landesman set about researching the screenplay with the rigor and intensity he brought to his journalism. Landesman had three years with Felt before he died in 2008, although he was in his 90s by then, and beginning to suffer from dementia.
“Felt was in and out,” says Landesman. “If you were there long enough, you had quiet periods and periods of heavy engagement. It was really fascinating what he did remember and why.”
Landesman also spent time with Felt’s daughter Joan and son Mark, Jr., and interviewed a number of the FBI agents, including Ed Miller (played in the film by Tony Goldwyn) and Angelo Lano (played by Ike Barinholtz).
Landesman also had two full-time researchers going through the FBI documents, Nixon’s tapes, and many other documents that had only recently been made available to the public. “I’m a big believer in primary research,” says Landesman.
However, for various reasons, the film never made it to production for many years. After Landesman finished shooting Concussion in 2015, the film’s producers Giannina Scott and Ridley Scott, asked him what he might like to do next, and he showed Giannina Scott his script for Mark Felt.
“I thought it was a story that needed to be told,” says Scott, “because I had never heard the story of Watergate portrayed that way before—from an FBI man at the highest level. All The President’s Men is a great movie told from the perspective of two journalists—it’s essentially an investigatory story. I found it incredibly interesting to be able to get into the internal workings of the FBI and see what really happened from inside Felt’s life, in his world.” Giannina brought the script to Ridley Scott, who had the same enthusiasm for it. They and their production company, Scott Free Productions, committed to making the film.
For the role of Mark Felt, the Scotts proposed Liam Neeson, who Ridley had previously collaborated with as director on Kingdom of Heaven and as producer of The Grey.
Neeson was intrigued and threw himself into research for the role. He read Felt’s autobiography The FBI Pyramid and Bob Woodward’s memoir The Secret Man and watched many of Felt’s TV appearances. Felt proved to be a man of many faces—albeit implacable one. On one hand, he was a kind of straight arrow, true believer in the FBI and America. “I think Mark Felt had a romantic idea of what a G-Man was and he lived up to that,” says Neeson.
“He believed in everything that Hoover stood for as regards security and defense of the country, and wanted to emulate him.” At the same time, Felt was, by his own admission in his book, a careerist. “Felt is what was known in the FBI in those days as a ‘torpedo,’ meaning he would quite ruthlessly go for the main chance to advance himself in Hoover’s eyes,” says Neeson. And as a man who was trained in counter-intelligence during WWII, Felt was a man who with a fluid skill set for telling untruths if it was necessary to serve his work. While giving information to Woodward and Sandy Smith of Time Magazine, he was, not only aggressively denying doing so, he was leading aggressive FBI investigations into finding the leaker. “That’s the riddle of the man,” says Neeson. “He was absolutely inscrutable. He spoke with authority but you could never quite read behind his eyes, even when he denied being ‘Deep Throat’ on television numerous times after Nixon left office. I’m an actor and I’m very aware when people are telling the truth or when they’re lying or when they’re acting—and Mark Felt was very believable in his denials that was ‘Deep Throat.’ That was certainly part of his armor and part of why he became so successful in the FBI.”
A larger question surrounding Felt is: why would a man who dedicated his life to an institution built on a foundation of maintaining secrets, turn around and reveal them?
Says Neeson: “The reason Felt did what he did remains unanswered, but we can certainly guess that he saw firsthand what was happening in the Nixon administration—which was corruption, law-breaking, lying, and deceiving at the highest level. He was very concerned for his country, and he felt duty-bound to expose that.” Still, by any margin, revealing FBI secrets was a major leap for Felt to undertake, and Landesman felt he found a clue why he chose to take that action in a story from his youth. “When Felt was a child, his father gave him a horse to take care of, so he would learn responsibility. And when Felt was only seven or eight, the horse had to be put down, and Felt’s father made him kill the horse himself. And what that did was give Felt an understanding of the weight and burdens of responsibility. You have to be willing sometimes to make very difficult choices, including destroying the thing you love to save the thing you love. And, casting forward, I think that was one of the reasons he was able to later rationalize betraying the FBI— because he knew that ultimately what he was doing was saving it.”
Still, there is little doubt that Felt was torn about what he did, as it went against his instincts and training as an FBI man. “He did something noble by exposing Nixon’s corruption and he was probably proud of that, but at the same time there is a code in the FBI that you just never snitch,” says Roach. “I think there was a part of him that was The Lone Ranger but also a part of him that was the good soldier. The part that was the good soldier could never quite forgive himself for some of the leaking and I think he was nervous about how it might be perceived, as he cared very much about his image with his fellow agents.” Perhaps this explains why Felt adamantly denied being “Deep Throat” for over three decades. “I think he was really ashamed of having betrayed the FBI because that’s all he lived for,” says Landesman. “But a second reason he kept quiet is that he was enraged that he’d been given the nickname, ‘Deep Throat.’ Felt was a real Midwestern, farm-raised Christian, and that drove him insane. When Woodward told him that ‘Deep Throat’ was a nickname his editor had given him, he started screaming at him.”
History placed Felt in an impossible situation that forced choices he would never have wanted to make. “What he did was to martyr himself and throw himself under the bus,” says Landesman. “He destroyed his career, thirty years in the FBI, all to protect greater truths that he had devoted his life to. “
Says Neeson: “I’m not 100% sure what a hero is but there’s certain aspects of how the various leads he gave Bob Woodward in that underground garage in Virginia that makes me think: yes, this guy is a hero because his life was on the line. They could have been murdered at any time by people within the Nixon administration. It was getting to that stage. So in that respect, I think he was a hero.” Says Giannina Scott: “I believe that people that will stand for what they believe in and stand for the truth are heroes, especially when they have everything to lose and really nothing to gain by it. Because if he had been discovered, he would have lost everything at that time, and he wouldn’t have gained any support or accolades for it.”
Today, Watergate has become so central to the way America sees itself that the suffix “-gate” has become shorthand for any kind of scandal or corruption. “Watergate redefined the modern era of politics,” says Tony Goldwyn, who plays Felt’s right-hand man Ed Miller. “It proved that no one is above the law, not even the President. I think up until that point, the President of the United States was pretty untouchable.” Says Lane: “Watergate set the template. It was the loss of innocence in our culture, of trusting our government. The time before that was a simpler time, and it’s nice to see what used to be considered shocking. Now that we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain of ‘Oz,’ you can’t go back, unless you forget history. In most movies you ask the audience to suspend disbelief; for this film we need people to suspend belief, which is the opposite of what most movies ask for.”
Says Neeson: “A corrupt government was found out, and that is democracy working. A lot of countries don’t have that and I think this film shines a light on America and the potential of what a real democracy can be.” Although it seems like a long time ago, perhaps not much has changed since then.
“One of the things I take away from it is that it’s easy as a human being, particularly as an American, when you’re in a time of political crisis to believe that nothing like this has ever happened before,” says Josh Lucas, who plays FBI man Charlie Bates. “Throughout our time as Americans, since the beginning of the Constitution, there have been these crises that have really pushed the country and separated the country. It’s not terribly unusual for it to happen.” Says Landesman: “People in power have very frail and fragile egos, and are driven by paranoia, in addition to whatever senses of civic obligation they feel. And history repeats itself, because people keep doing the same stupid things to protect themselves, or doing what they think will protect themselves.”
“Let’s not pretend that this can’t happen again,” says Goldwyn. “It can happen again and we always have to be prepared for it. It’s like a World War. People say it will never happen again, but it’s human nature and it can.”