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.
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.”