Long before the presidency of Donald Trump – which is to say, before the world was seized by a fever dream of swirling paranoia, dizzying chaos, and obstruction-of-justice allegations – the writer-director Peter Landesman had an idea for a movie about a scandal that brought down a president: one of paranoia, chaos and obstruction of justice.
Even better, it was a true story, about the man known as Deep Throat – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's secret source during their Watergate investigation. For more than 10 years, Landesman laboured to bring it to the screen, never dreaming that it would end up pointing so directly to our own era. Which brings to mind the question: In Hollywood, where success depends largely on timing, is Landesman the luckiest man alive? Or – given the public's collective exhaustion of keeping up with the daily Trump drama – the unluckiest?
"Oh, lucky," Landesman insisted during an interview at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, where Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House had its world premiere. "The relevance is supernaturally coincidental. I'm not surprised. I'm surprised Trump's in my life. But I'm not surprised that human behaviour is repeating itself, because human behaviour does what it does all the time."
Landesman acknowledged that the parallels might make it difficult for audiences to judge the film on its own merits. But he noted that his last film, Concussion, in which Will Smith starred as a neuropathologist who discovers a connection between football and the brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), also intersected hard with the headlines.
"Look, whenever a movie takes on an iconic moment that people have a lot of opinions about, some large percentage – 30, 40 per cent – will not be able to see the movie as a movie. They'll project onto it their own ideas, expectations."
Still, he added, "I embrace it."
Felt, the FBI's second-in-command, had to fend off moves by the Nixon White House to shut down the bureau's investigation into the June, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex, which had been carried out by men working for the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The bureau was already in a rocky state: Its longtime head, J. Edgar Hoover, had died that May, and it was under fire for failing to halt a series of bombings by the left-wing revolutionary group known as the Weather Underground.
For those who know about the Watergate investigation primarily from Woodward and Bernstein's 1974 book, All the President's Men, or its masterful 1976 film adaptation, Mark Felt shades in some of the mysteries, such as why the reporters' FBI sources seemed so skittish.
In the film, Felt (Liam Neeson), who has been with the bureau for 30 years, is resentful after Hoover dies and the top job goes to a White House-friendly lackey. When the new boss threatens to end the Watergate investigation, Felt keeps it alive by leaking details to the Time magazine reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and others. (The character of Bob Woodward appears in only one brief scene; when he tells Felt that the Washington Post newsroom has dubbed him "Deep Throat," the G-Man is not amused.)
Even as he leads a small cadre of agents in the investigation, and thwarts suspicions that he is the one leaking to the press, Felt navigates a tortured home life, buoying up his depressive, alcoholic wife, Audrey (Diane Lane), while trying to track down his runaway daughter, whom he fears has joined the Weather Underground.
For more than three decades, Deep Throat's true identity remained a mystery, until Felt came out in an explosive June, 2005, Vanity Fair article. (He died three years later.) The film rights to the story were quickly sewn up by Tom Hanks's company, Playtone, and Landesman was desperate to land the writing assignment, but he figured his chances were slim: At the time, he was an investigative journalist (his stories for The New York Times Magazine include ones about art forgeries and sex trafficking in the U.S.), but he had no screen credits.
"I knew I was going to be going up against every good screenwriter in the business, and I was a nobody," said Landesman. "The only way I was going to get that job is if I forced them to hire me. And the only way to do that was by finding out the truth." So he set out to investigate and discover the true story, locating and speaking with some of the real-life key figures. (Some years later, he took on directing duties, too.)
At the time, he says, nobody else knew the back story of Felt's daughter, or his wife, who died by suicide in 1984. (Those details came out in a 2006 memoir co-written by Felt.)
In a separate interview at TIFF, Neeson said the exploration of Felt's personal life was what drew him on board the project. "One of the thoughts I had was, I'm playing someone who's quite inscrutable, and is hard to read," said Neeson, explaining that he watched an old interview Felt had given, "and he was asked, 'Are you Deep Throat?' and he kind of smirked and just laughed and said, 'No, I'm not' – and I believed him! So I thought, he's a good actor, you know?"
"For 90 per cent of the film we're seeing a guy just walking down corridors, and on the telephone and sitting behind desks: 'Are the audience going to get bored?' That was my overall kind of thought of the experience of watching the film."
But then, he said, he read a scene in which Felt finds his daughter. "I thought – finally, okay, we can allow the audience a release. I can 'unzip' Mark Felt to a certain extent, show an emotion of a guy who deeply, deeply loved his daughter – and his wife, too."
The core of the story, though, is the loyal FBI agent fighting behind the scenes for justice to be done. Landesman evidently feels protective of his main character, especially those who have argued that Felt leaked to the press out of revenge for losing out on the top job. "That's so nonsensical," he said dismissively.
And there is a proprietary element to the way Landesman speaks of his subject, as if he knows more about Felt and the Watergate investigation than even those who reported it at the time. He praised the film adaptation of All the President's Men, calling it "a piece of magisterial art," but then added, "That film is a masterpiece. It's not true! But it is a masterpiece."
What does he mean by "not true"? Is he suggesting Woodward and Bernstein's reporting was incorrect?
"I think they got to write their mythology first," Landesman replied. "And I think that the author of history is the guy who gets there first. I think that they knew only what Felt wanted them to know, and when he wanted them to know it. And I'm not even sure they still understand that."
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House opens Oct. 13 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.