Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

It's a bit odd to be seeing movies while on vacation, especially ones that I could have caught at home - there's this feeling that with limited time in Vienna, I really should have better, only-in-Austria ways to spend my time than watching movies. But, hey, this city kind of closes down at 6pm aside from the bars, and it's chilly. Might as well use that time when half my brain figures it's only noon anyway, just like half of it figures it's only 6:30pm even though the clock says it's past midnight (the other half is kind of tired).

I've discovered a couple of neat theaters here which specialize in showing film in English, though - "Haydn Kino" is also called "English Cinema Haydn" and does, in fact, show all English movies without subtitles (although when I saw Thor: Ragnarok there last week, the on-screen title was "Thor: Tag der Entscheidung"), while Burg Kino didn't have subtitles on its regular screenings of The Third Man. It's kind of nuts, speaking to the degree to which English is the world's second language and how a certain chunk of Viennese filmgoers, at least, are kind of hardcore. I mean, I totally understand wanting to see a movie in its original language, but even if my French didn't suck, I kind of figure I'd still want subtitles when I saw a Francophonic film, just as backup. I mean, there can't be enough visitors like me or expatriates watching these movies to drive multiple theaters showing these movies without subs, right?

(Well, okay, maybe The Third Man is mostly visitors, but that's like three shows a week)

Of course, there are different definitions of hardcore: There's been another round of folks grumbling about theaters not masking their screens properly back in America, and that's a fight that seems to have been lost in these theaters - The Third Man was presented on a 2.35:1 screen, projected from a 1.85:1 DCP, with a 1.33:1 image in the center (all ratios approximate, so don't nitpick) and no masking; the 1.85:1 Mark Felt wasn't masked either. But the folks are seeing it unsubtitled in a foreign language.

(Also: At both spots, you pay a different price based on what screen something is on at the very least and often depending on the film, something else Americans have been freaking out about a chain introducing next year.)

And enjoying it - the audience certainly enjoyed Mark Felt a bit more than I did, with a bit of applause at the end. I think it might actually have lasted longer here than back home - this is the second weekend it's playing one show a week, and I figure it must have had one week of full shows, which is three. I'm pretty sure this only lasted two in Boston.

Anyway, it's been fun, and I'm looking forward to getting back to the familiar spots back home even if I have enjoyed this vacation quite a bit.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (aka The Secret Man)

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2017 in Haydn Kino C (first-run, DCP)

It's quite possible that the biggest mistake filmmaker Peter Landesman made in adapting the memoirs Mark Felt wrote with John O'Connor is focusing on his role in first investigating the Watergate break-ins and then leaking them to the press. Yes, they are the most dramatic parts of his career with the widest-reaching consequences, but are they the most interesting stories to tell about this man? I'm not sure. And if they are, they may still be too complicated to address in a film this size, even without the other elements of Felt's story being given time.

Take the question that opens the film, before the Watergate break-ins, when John Dean (Michael C. Hall) and other Nixon advisors bring Deputy Assistant FBI Director W. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) in to a meeting to feel out what it would take to get director J. Edgar Hoover to resign. Felt dismisses the notion as impossible, emphasizing the private files Hoover has on all of Washington - which, by the way, all went through him. But when Hoover dies, Felt executes Hoover's orders to destroy the files, and it's an intriguing dynamic - this information, unsavory as it was, had in practical terms guaranteed the Bureau's autonomy. Felt believes in this autonomy fervently, fanatically even, but doesn't seem to have the stomach for gathering and managing blackmail material. It's a potentially fascinating thread that seems like it should be at the center of the film: That the Watergate break-in itself might have only been considered because the FBI had weakened itself, and giving the investigation its proper teeth required Felt to go outside the Bureau's proper mode of operation, albeit in a different way.

It's likely something that Landesman (and, earlier, Felt and O'Connor) considered, but it's not addressed directly, with Felt visibly wrestling with it. Perhaps the very fact that I'm mentioning it now means that the filmmakers did well enough in laying it out, especially since it's arguable that this sort of career G-man would not have been prone to this sort of open self-reflection. Still, Landesman is not opposed to shoehorning in some awkward exposition in other spots, and he has Liam Neeson play Felt with such firm assurance that it's often easy to recall the credit from the start that points out that this was adapted from books Felt co-wrote - it begins to feel almost self-serving, despite the many hands that it would have to pass through between Felt trying to justify his actions and the screen. It doesn't help that the film ends in mid-pregnant pause, like Landesman found a great stranger-than-fiction moment but couldn't figure out how to make it fit his take on Felt, so he just stopped.

Full review on EFC.

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