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‘Mark Felt’ movie openings

Oct. 6: Bay Area

Oct. 13: Summerfield Cinemas, Santa Rosa

Oct. 20: Rialto Cinemas, Sebastopol. The 7 p.m. show opening night will feature a Q&A with John O’Connor, co-author with Mark Felt of “A G-Man’s Life.” Felt’s daughter Joan Felt and grandson Will Felt will attend.

Historically significant and yet shrouded in secrecy for decades, Mark Felt — the 1970s Watergate scandal whistleblower long known only as “Deep Throat” — is still not quite a household name.

After his retirement as second-in-command at the FBI, Felt came to live with his daughter Joan at her northwest Santa Rosa home in 1992, and kept a very low profile until he finally revealed his secret in a Vanity Fair article in 2005.

“There was a collective shrug when he confessed. I’d never heard of his name. It was a giant anti-climax,” said Peter Landesman, writer and director of the new film, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” opening at Bay Area theaters Friday, Oct. 6.

The movie comes to Sonoma County later this month, opening Oct. 13 at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa, and Oct. 20 at the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.

Even though reporters crowded Felt’s lawn the day of the revelation, the reclusive lifelong lawman — struggling with strokes and Alzheimer’s disease by then — didn’t become an instant celebrity.

“I think people were disappointed that it wasn’t someone sexier,” said Landesman during an interview last week in San Francisco, “but what I loved about it is that anonymity,”

The movie stars Liam Neeson as Felt in a terse, tense, tight-lipped performance as the career lawman fighting to protect the FBI’s independence and expose corruption in the Nixon administration in 1972.

“Felt was a counter-espionage expert, so he ran distraction campaigns to protect himself in order to finish the job,” Landesman said.

At the same time, Felt searched on his own for his daughter Joan, who had disappeared into a commune somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The film also follows his pursuit of the Weather Underground, or “Weathermen,” a militant left-wing group under investigation for a series bombings in 1972 and 1973..

Felt was convicted in 1980 for illegal break-ins and wire taps committed by the FBI during that investigation and was pardoned by President Reagan the following year.

Understated man

Landesman said he’s proud of Neeson’s performance in a challenging role as an understated, secretive and deeply private man working behind the scenes in the tangled world of Washington D.C. politics.

“Liam is an extraordinary actor,” Landesman. “It’s easy to blow s--- up in movies and run and scream and be melodramatic. What he did in this film meets a very high bar. I don’t know if people will appreciate his performance enough.”

In the film, Landesman and Neeson worked to present both the public and private sides of Mark Felt.

“I think Felt, even when he was working at the FBI, had different personas that he would take on and off.” Landesman said. “As a father, he was very warm and open, and when he went to work, it was all very ‘Mr. This’ and ‘Mr. That.’ It wasn’t a performance. It was a different persona.”

Hired in 2005 to write a screenplay about Felt, soon after the former FBI man revealed his behind-the-scenes role in exposing the Watergate cover-up, Landesman began visiting Felt in Santa Rosa to collect material.

“He was 92 then,” Landesman recalled.

“There were moments of clarity. He was definitely on the slide, but there were times when he really engaged in telling his story. His good humor and courage came through.”

Help from family

Felt died of congestive heart failure in Santa Rosa in 2008 at age 95, but daughter Joan continued working closely with Landesman, who made the father’s search for his daughter (played by Maika Monroe on the screen) an important part of the screenplay.

Her son, Will Felt, 43, who lives in San Francisco, has a background role in the movie as an FBI agent.

The Felt project was delayed for years, with various producers expressing interest at different times, while Landesman, a former war correspondent and investigative reporter, continued to research the story.

In the meantime, Landesman became prominent as a writer and director for other films, including “Parkland” in 2013, about the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as a doctor crusading to expose the dangers of brain damage to profession football players, which stirred controversy when it came out last year.

“The truth is the truth,” Landesman said.

“There’s a weird parallel between making these movies and the subject matter of the movies, whether it’s Will Smith’s character in ‘Concussion,’” or whether it’s Mark Felt, They’re doing something with integrity for a higher purpose, and of course, they’re going to be undermined for it, because society doesn’t like that.”

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who led the Watergate reporting at the time, have criticized Landesman’s film as exaggerating Felt’s role in exposing the Nixon administration’s cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

The ensuing scandal eventually ended in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Film’s full title

Woodward and Bernstein specifically objected to the film’s full title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” saying many other sources were involved.

“There’s nothing in the movie that exaggerates Felt’s role,” Landesman said. “The title might. If you look at it from their point of view, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out why they might not like that title.”

Blocked from continuing his Watergate investigation by the Nixon administration, and passed over as successor to J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, a job he had long been groomed for, Felt leaked information on the crime and cover-up to Woodward at the Washington Post and Sandy Smith at Time magazine.

-His anonymity tells me it was an act of pure motivation and heroism,” Landesman said.

“David versus Goliath is a enduring myth for a reason.” he added. With corruption at the top, there’s always somebody at the bottom who’s willing to sacrifice everything. These are age-old themes that don’t have expiration dates.”

The timing of the film’s release has prompted comment, even though the movie has been planned for more than a decade, because the Donald Trump administration currently is under investigation by a special prosecutor and was under investigation by FBI director James Comey, before he was fired by President Trump earlier this year.

“It’s a supernatural coincidence,” Landesman said.

Last week, Felt’s daughter Joan said he gained new insights on her father after watching Landemsan’s film.

“I appreciated that comment from her,” Landesman said.

“He was her father but she didn’t know what was going on inside the FBI.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danart.

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