NEW YORK — More than four decades after Hal Holbrook stood smoking in a darkened parking lot, urging Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward to “follow the money,” the famed Watergate source “Deep Throat” is, in cinematic terms, finally stepping out of the shadows.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a kind of bookend to Alan J. Pakula 1976 masterpiece “All the President’s Men” that gives a belated big-screen close-up to the man who was — until he revealed himself in 2005 as the Washington Post’s famous source — shrouded in mystery.
But whether “Mark Felt” adds clarity to the legend of Watergate or further mythologizes it is up for debate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the famed journalists whose reporting earned the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize, say Peter Landesman’s film overstates the importance of Felt in untangling Watergate, portraying him as a puppet master pulling the strings that would, as the subtitle asserts, topple Richard Nixon.
Felt, then the No. 2 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, played an integral role in exposing Nixon’s attempted cover-up. But by depicting Felt as the grand orchestrator of the president’s demise, Woodward and Bernstein say, “Mark Felt” distorts the history — and lessons — of Watergate.
“Felt played a role, at times a courageous one,” Woodward told The Associated Press. “But this portrait of him as ‘the man who brought down the White House’ just isn’t accurate.”
Woodward and Bernstein voiced their concerns with Landesman in an email to the filmmaker last October that they shared with The Associated Press. They implored Landesman to drop the subtitle, calling it “demonstrably false.”
In the letter, they maintained that Nixon’s fall was “the work of many” — contributors they listed as ranging from Frank Wells, the Watergate office security guard who discovered the break in, to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon had to turn over his tapes. “Mark Felt was only one of several dozen sources we used,” they wrote.
“Let the story speak for itself,” they concluded. “A hyped effort to make it more will fail and do yourselves and Mark Felt a grave disservice.”
It’s far from the first time the facts surrounding Watergate have been contested. Woodward and Bernstein have played their own part in growing the legend around their landmark journalism and the aura around the source they nicknamed. Their 1974 book, “All the President’s Men,” recounted their extraordinarily methodical, step-by-step reporting. The resulting film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, stayed close to the truth but it added some dramatic flourishes. The now-famous line “follow the money,” for example, was an invention of screenwriter William Goldman.
In response to Woodward and Bernstein’s comments, Landesman — a former investigative journalist, himself, whose previous film was the 2015 docudrama “Concussion,” with Will Smith — suggested there were parallels between the approaches of the two films.
“This film sees Watergate through the keyhole of Felt’s experience as the man leading the FBI investigation into the White House’s cover-up, just as ‘All the President’s Men’ saw Watergate through the keyhole of Woodward and Bernstein’s experience,” Landesman said in a statement to the AP.
In an earlier interview about the film, Landesman boasted of the film’s accuracy — particularly in a parking garage meeting between Woodward and Felt — in comparison to “All the President’s Men.” Landesman added that Pakula’s film is one of his favorites.
“It’s a much fuller representation of what really happened that night than what’s in ‘All the President’s Men,'” said Landesman. “There’s a lot of that film that was the creation and the poetic dramatization of Bill Goldman, more than was factually accurate. My ambition was to make this movie the more iconically accurate version of events.”
Landesman’s commitment to accuracy has been questioned before. Citing emails leaked in the hack of Sony Pictures, The New York Times reported that “Concussion” was altered to soften its criticism of the NFL. Many disputed that page-one report, though, on the basis of the still hard-hitting finished film. Landesman vigorously denied the claims and calls the Times report “a hit piece” that damaged the movie.
A 2004 cover story of Landesman’s for the New York Times Magazine about sex trafficking in the U.S., also came under scrutiny for allegedly exaggerating the scope of domestic sex trafficking. The veteran media critic Jack Shafer penned numerous columns for Slate questioning the story, including one titled “Doubting Landesman,” to which Landesman wrote several responses defending his article.
Landesman recently told the New Yorker that Woodward and Bernstein “loved” the film.
“Mark Felt,” which will be released on Friday, focuses heavily on Felt’s battles within the FBI. Nixon nominated a longtime loyalist, L. Patrick Gray as acting director after the death of J. Edgar Hoover. A loyal servant to Hoover and ardent defender of the bureau, Felt (played by Liam Neeson) was angered by being passed over for the post. But he was infuriated by the White House’s attempts to control the FBI and obstruct its investigation into Watergate. Felt perpetuated the Watergate investigation and clandestinely fed the press information to keep the story in the papers.
Some of Felt’s motives and actions are well known, but not all of them. He died in 2008 at the age of 95. That made making “Mark Felt” a kind of investigation of its own. Felt was also indicted in 1978 for ordering illegal break-ins of homes of family and friends of Weather Underground members. President Ronald Reagan pardoned him.
“You try to find out: Was he a hero? Was he a traitor to the FBI? Was he so pissed off that he was overlooked when Hoover died? I would have been,” said Neeson.
“There was a moment where we were filming where (Liam) was like, ‘I can’t keep track of all the things that I’m supposed to know on any one day, on any one moment,” says Diane Lane, who plays Felt’s wife, Audrey. “You’re trying to remember how much you know when. At a certain point, you go, ‘This guy was a genius.'”
Woodward chronicled his relationship with Felt in the 2005 book, “The Secret Man: The Story Of Watergate’s Deep Throat.” In it, he described Felt as considering the Nixon team “Nazis.” Time and again he told Woodward during their meetings: “I have to do this my way.”
“Because of his position virtually atop the chief investigative agency, his words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering, authority,” wrote Woodward.
Felt’s story is to Landesman “almost satirically relevant” today. The movie was finished while FBI Director James Comey was fired by President Trump, after which Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Woodward, who’s currently writing a book on Trump to be published next year, grants that “Mark Felt” captures the strength of somebody acting on their convictions, and he praises Neeson’s performance. But his and Bernstein’s objections are that “Mark Felt” lacks the essential context of the bigger picture.
Failing to connect the dots, in a way, is to go against what Watergate and “All the President’s Men” stood for.
“Events in history have multiple causes and multiple people involved almost always,” said Woodward. “And it did here.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP