Set in the aftermath of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s death, 2017’s “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” was a historical thriller about the new FBI leadership and how it came to terms with Hoover’s passing as well as Watergate.
The film followed Felt as he betrayed the FBI by leaking to reporters and becoming the notorious “Deep Throat.”
It boasted an A-list cast that included Liam Neeson as Felt and Diane Lane as his wife, yet the film garnered mixed reviews and performed dismally at the box office.
The film’s release was timed to capitalize on public interest in the now-fading Russiagate allegations, and the producers seemed more interested in playing into the contemporary political narrative than with an accurate presentation of very important historical events.
Producers were supported by the FBI, who recently released a cache of documents in response to a FOIA request on the support they provided to the movie.
Curiously, it was the FBI who first approached the filmmakers to offer their assistance. They did not wait to be asked. (This happened with Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” too.)
Way back in July 2005, when “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach was attached to the project, the Bureau offered their help with historical authenticity and access to FBI personnel and locations. A letter from a “public affairs specialist” stated, “Please know that I am here to facilitate cooperation and ensure accuracy.”
Over the following years, the FBI provided technical input, including providing advice on what FBI files looked like in the early 1970s. They arranged access to former agents who knew Felt, and ultimately facilitated filming at the Justice Department building, where the Bureau was headquartered.
Filmmakers were urged to file Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request for files relevant to their research. A name and number for a contact in the FOIA office was provided.
(Note: This is the only time I’ve known the Bureau to encourage a FOIA request. Plus, typically journalists must contend with a slow, dysfunctional request system and an email address
that spits out generic auto-responses.)
An email to the FBI from screenwriter Peter Landesman, who ultimately directed and produced the film, declared, “By no means are we looking to make a film that romanticizes or lionizes anyone.”
But the finished film contradicts this statement, as it portrays Felt as a noble man for leaking the truth about political interference in the FBI’s Watergate investigation. It also depicts Pat Gray, President Richard Nixon’s appointee to replace Hoover, very negatively, as a craven and cowardly man beholden to the White House and despised by the Bureau’s agents.
Gray later wrote a book based on his personal Watergate files that concluded Felt alone was not Deep Throat. He was one of several leakers who journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein amalgamated into their infamous “deep background” source.
Following Pat Gray’s death the book, “In Nixon’s Web,” was finished and published by his son, Ed, who is profoundly critical of the Mark Felt film.
Shadowproof spoke to Ed, who commented, “Landesman set out from the outset to lionize Felt at the expense of the truth. Of course, he ignored not only my later research, but the first-person account of my father. And those of many other researchers and firsthand observers as well.”
On the FBI’s participation and influence on the film, Gray observed, “The FBI has for a very long time had an office dedicated to interacting with film and television. The purpose has always been PR, to try to have the FBI portrayed in a positive light. So, of course, they steered the producers in the direction the Bureau wanted them to go.”
Another email from Landesman to the FBI discussed the script, adding, “The FBI really does come off well here. The unsung heroes of Watergate. With the exception of Pat Gray, of course, who lied his way through his tenure there, and continued to do so in his book, posthumously. Gray will go down as one of the great patsies of American political history. Sad story.”
Ed Gray responded, “There are no lies in the book, as my father and I pointed out repeatedly in the text. Almost every word was vetted by prosecutors wanting to indict him, and in every case they were forced to conclude that he had only told the truth.”
“The book has been out for 12 years and without a doubt has been read by anyone with any sort of axe to grind, reputation to protect, or serious interest in Watergate,” Gray added. “To my knowledge, no credible source has ever pointed out a single error or misstatement within it.”
Gray described his contact with Landesman during the development of his script.
“Landesman, on the other hand, has an axe to grind with me. Early in his process, when it was still a [Tom] Hanks project and he was just the screenwriter, he and I had several long telephone calls. I tried very hard to disabuse him of the fantasy he describes in the email. I told him—and passed the same advice along to others in an attempt to get it in front of Hanks – that if Tom were to play Mark Felt he would do major damage to his reputation for portraying honorable characters under stress.”
“Because Felt would eventually be shown by history to have been a liar and a leaker for all the wrong reasons,” Gray suggested. “I’d love to think that my warning got to Hanks, with the result that he pulled out of the project. And if that’s the case, then you can see why Landesman would be driven to try to exact some revenge in his eventual portrayal of my father.”
Landesman provided his script to the FBI for them to review, and an FBI agent (a historian, it seems) provided a “page-by-page analysis of the divergence between history and drama.”
Despite identifying numerous factual inaccuracies, and claiming their whole reason for being involved in the film was to ensure accuracy, they told Landesman, “Feel free to incorporate any or none of his observations.”
The FBI chose, “Positive PR, no doubt,” Gray said.
Script notes and emails from the FBI devote a huge amount of time to the question of whether Hoover’s desk sat on a platform, to make him appear taller. As other documents from the FBI’s entertainment liaison office show, Hoover’s portrayal and reputation in cinema are a consistent concern.
Landesman rewrote his script in light of the FBI’s notes, but only made changes that helped the story he wanted to tell. For example, the script showed Felt calling Bob Woodward and telling him about Alex Shipley and Donald Segretti—two young lawyers recruited to work on the Nixon reelection campaign’s dirty tricks program.
“Shipley/Segretti leak is fictional to some extent; Felt knew of him but Woodstein turned up his significance later that year, not the FBI, and then they began to pursue the dirty tricks angle,” according to the FBI’s script notes. “This was ancillary to Watergate, though it became the key to the wider issue of Nixon dirty tricks.”
Despite Felt never leaking this information, Landesman kept the scene in the script, inflating Felt’s importance. At the same time he professed in an email, “I want to minimize if not eliminate any shots the movie takes on accuracy.”
The original script contained multiple scenes of FBI agents following Pat Gray, under orders from Felt. But the FBI’s notes acknowledge, “I never have seen any evidence that Bureau agents followed Gray,” and, “I know of no evidence that Felt had Gray tailed.” Landesman removed these scenes from the script.
Gray was asked if he knew whether Felt ever ordered surveillance on his father.
“I can’t imagine Felt having the balls to try to have my father tailed or any other special agent being dumb enough to accept the assignment, or Felt in real life having any reason to do so.,” Gray replied. “Across the board, the street agents liked the changes that [Pat Gray] brought to the Bureau.”
Gray continued, “As for Felt, his goal was get named the permanent director. Until January 1973, he still, like everyone else including my father, thought Nixon was going to nominate someone other than Gray as the permanent director. So why would he do anything other than what he did, which was to perform well and curry favor with Gray on the assumption that my father would, as he in fact did, praise Felt to the president.”
Landesman’s rewritten script resulted in a film that portrayed Felt and the FBI very positively, showing them investigating the Watergate fiasco with integrity and intelligence. Meanwhile, Gray was shown to be little more than Nixon’s lapdog, scuttling the investigation and helping to politicize it.
Gray concluded, “As far back as my early conversations with Landesman, [he talked] to a cadre of Watergate-era agents, including Angie Lano and others, who have long pitched the version from their limited street-level view that the Bureau cracked the case totally but were stymied by higher level officials—my father included.”
“I expect that Landesman believes them over any and all other sources.”