By Christopher Sharrett.
One of the characteristics of our militarized society, aside from the constant deluge of cop shows, superhero movies, and inane affirmations of family life, is the erasure of history. We may think we get the past in reliable form via the PBS channels and other “respected” media outlets, in solemn documentaries like the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick TV opus The Vietnam War, but what we get is mostly emotional pabulum – Burns is the Great Sentimentalist of the American past. His earlier epic, The Civil War (1990), practically turned Burns into our official historian, despite his magnum opus’s many errors. It is decidedly Reconciliationist in outlook, a saga of the Blue and Gray, a contest of two gallant sides. Burns is often unabashed in his praise of the Confederacy and its leaders, certainly via the series’ main talking head, the late novelist Shelby Foote, a white supremacist whose hero was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a ferocious Confederate cavalry officer, a slave salesman who murdered black prisoners of war and was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest gets as much time in the series as Ulysses S. Grant; the show’s denouement, which ignores what happened to Reconstruction, includes quiet mourning at Robert E. Lee’s tomb, Foote reciting verse as we gaze at The Marble Man’s stone effigy on his sarcophagus. Foote minimizes the role of slavery in causing the war, referring to it, in the show’s DVD supplements, as something “used almost as a propaganda thing.” The Vietnam War is cut from similar cloth, with a “balanced” point of view that begins with the premise that the attack on Southeast Asia was done by decent, honorable, intelligent men, who through stumbles and bumbles found themselves in a sticky situation. There are more reprehensible films than The Vietnam War, but at the moment I can’t think of one.
There is plenty of propaganda around these days, including films that appear to use Roland Barthes’s idea of “inoculation” from his fine essay “Operation Margarine” in Mythologies (1957), almost all one needs for an understanding of semiotics. Barthes argued that power structures must occasionally acknowledge the public’s intelligence by admitting to some sins, so that the worst sins can be kept unacknowledged, and the legitimacy of power (including private power – business) restored.
Such would appear to be the case with the new film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. W. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) was a secret informant to Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate crisis. Felt was also a very high-ranking FBI officer, and a staunch loyalist to J. Edgar Hoover; after Hoover’s death the assumption of the FBI was that Felt would rise to the directorship. Instead, President Nixon chose L. Patrick Gray, a functionary perceived as a friend to the White House. An angry Felt, so the story goes, became a “deep background” informant, who created a close relationship with Woodward. Felt was known by the code name “Deep Throat” within the Washington press corps, and then the entire country. (It is telling that imaginations went no further than the most popular porno film of the day.) The real identity of Deep Throat was a parlor game for over thirty years, until Felt’s name was revealed in a 2005 Vanity Fair piece. Woodward seemed to have a book ready at the same moment called The Inside Man. A feeble Felt appeared at his doorway with his family, all waving at the cameras.
In the movie Mark Felt, low-key light predominates, the color palette a morbid gray-blue, the sky overcast, a Hollywood visual evocation of a “fallen world” taken over by “evil,” popular at least since Se7en (1995). Watergate is a strange plague affecting America, a terrible impulse bedeviling the souls of certain endemically corrupt men whose miscreance is finally being revealed to us, courtesy of those able to see into the dark hearts of men many years earlier.
In the film, Felt is a torn, conscience-stricken man bedeviled by an alcoholic, emotionally abandoned wife (Diane Lane). We have the old stereotype of the too-dedicated cop and his put-upon wife; in Mark Felt, the stereotype comes very close to the Fatal Woman image of Reagan-era films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Ordinary People (1980), where the wife is either neglectful or a full-blown bitch. In Mark Felt, although the stiff-necked Felt is a man not to be trifled with, he is the tender heart of his family, an emotional man who tearfully cuddles the couple’s alienated, hippie daughter and her baby as the wife stands distant. With his carefully coiffed pompadour (the real Felt indeed had longish hair; it’s hard to see how he passed muster in Hoover’s FBI) Felt seems to be his own man, independent and liberal-minded.
The film, surprisingly, has few of the near-gothic underground garage meetings, as in All the President’s Men (1976), where Deep Throat (played by a snarling, shadow-hidden Hal Holbrook) makes dire remarks about the CIA and the threats to the lives of Woodward-Bernstein. In Mark Felt, Felt is the center of interest, navigating a bleak world at home and work, the free press actually a bit marginal and suspect. We run into a number of characters barely identified, like William Sullivan (a very dissipated Tom Sizemore, in no way resembling the man he portrays in his brief screen time), another high-ranking FBI officer depicted as an angry rival to Felt.
I’ll take a moment to assist the viewer through this murk by sorting things out. Although “who was Deep Throat?” was indeed a parlor game for decades, with The Washington Post sworn to secrecy, many people believed Deep Throat had to be an official at the highest reaches of the intelligence community. Nixon’s lawyer John Dean thought he might be Alexander Haig, a Kissinger protégé and White House Chief of Staff. Robert Bennett was also a suspect, a Utah senator and former CIA officer who ran the Mullen Agency, a CIA cover for Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars.
At first glance, based on Woodward’s writing in his co-authored Watergate account All the President’s Men, Deep Throat seemed to be a conscientious mid-grade civil servant who was a casual acquaintance of Woodward (it is interesting, in retrospect, that Woodward called his then-mystery man informant “an old friend”). But this idea quickly faded. In his useful book Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, J. Anthony Lukas mentions in an endnote, with little qualification, that W. Mark Felt provided secret information to the press about the crimes of the Nixon government as the Watergate scandal unfolded. The venomous H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, also believed at the time of the Watergate scandal that the Judas was Mark Felt – Nixon shared the same suspicion. But Woodward and Felt consistently denied the accusation, and accusation it was since, after the revealing of Felt’s identity, conservatives viewed Felt a traitor, while some liberals called him a hero for helping bring down the psychopathic Nixon.
Bob Woodward’s first meeting with Mark Felt is curious. It is worth noting that Woodward was a Republican (Carl Bernstein at the time was a hippieish Democrat) who attended Yale on a Naval ROTC scholarship. He spent his stint in Naval Intelligence. According to his own account, in 1970, while still in the Navy under Admiral Joseph Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Woodward was dispatched to deliver something to the White House. While waiting, he met Mark Felt, also waiting. The two men struck up a conversation and became good buddies; Felt would occasionally give Woodward career tips. I don’t want to trade in what is now called “conspiracy theory” (although conspiracy is the one of the most commonly invoked criminal charges) nor to take the reader down some arcane path that we can’t possibly pursue in this space, but merely note what is now in the public record.
There are no heroes in the dense backstory of Nixon and Watergate, which is more about internecine warfare within the American power structure than a battle of the virtuous forces of democracy against evildoers.
There had been intense rivalry between the FBI and the CIA since the CIA’s inception in 1947. J. Edgar Hoover expected to take charge of the Agency, but the CIA was to be populated with Ivy League types like Allen Dulles and William Donovan, prominent Wall St. lawyers with very close connections to the private sector. These men viewed Hoover essentially as “white trash.” His identity as a closeted gay man was discovered early in CIA history. A conflict began, causing the two organizations to withhold information from each other, and even to sabotage the rival’s investigations (such was true even in most volatile moments like the JFK assassination). But the burgeoning secrets of both organizations became a weapon in the Other’s hands, like the CIA’s monstrous coups and assassinations to bring down any foreign leader with a bent toward socialism, and the FBI’s persecution and murder of dissidents at home, especially blacks in the civil rights era of the 1960s (Hoover was a committed white supremacist). President Richard Nixon had his own secrets, like illegal loans from billionaires like Howard Hughes, who also had financial ties to the CIA, and the sabotaging of a possible peace treaty that would have ended the Vietnam War before Nixon could take office (this point is daintily mentioned even in the Ken Burns film). Nixon was a consummate paranoid psychopath, who formed a burglary team called the “plumbers,” made up of “former” CIA agents, at least one of whom, James McCord, was a former FBI and CIA officer (and an expert on security, yet left obvious clues at the Watergate site), began to spill the facts to a judge when the plumbers were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. The plan, it seems now, was to point all fingers at the despicable Nixon – and despicable he was – and to protect the rest of U.S. intelligence.
Anyone watching this story unfold (and it is far too baroque to detail here) could see that the intelligence community feared Nixon would upset the whole apple cart, and at an extremely explosive moment, as the Vietnam invasion tore the nation apart with dissent (but never threatening revolution, as nearly unfolded in May ’68 Paris). Corporate America had grave doubts about continuing the carpet-bombing of Southeast Asia after the Tet offensive of 1968, and private-sector anger grew as Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy, accompanied by truly genocidal firebombing of the entirety of Vietnam (Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the military he wanted “everything that flies on everything that moves”). On top of this, in 1971 Nixon unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods agreement, collapsing the postwar liberal economic order that made the U.S. the world’s banker. As all this unfolded, Nixon authorized burglars to attack his political rivals through burglary and sabotage.
Nixon sent H.R. Haldeman to see CIA Director Richard Helms, asking him to muddy up the FBI’s investigation of Watergate. According to his account in The Ends of Power, Haldeman told Helms that the Watergate affair, a direct assault on the Constitution, was “a comedy of errors,” and that the CIA should step in since the affair tracks back to “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” The ordinarily cool spymaster exploded and threw Haldeman out of his office. The “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was long known as a CIA project, so what made Helms so mad? Haldeman figured that the phrase, given him by Nixon, referred to a welter of crimes from the early 60s, including the JFK assassination. Whatever the case, this is but one episode showing us that Watergate must be seen as a code word for a vast set of crimes in which the whole state apparatus was involved through the postwar years.
The point is made clear by looking at the activities around Watergate carried out by the state, and the real role of characters in Mark Felt given the vaguest sketch by the filmmakers.
Nixon liked to minimize Watergate by calling it a “third-rate burglary.” He may have been right, since the break-in was third-rate in quality, but carried out by some highly-skilled criminals, operatives for the intelligence agencies with expertise in counterespionage and “dirty tricks.” Nixon may also have been right if one compares Watergate to the FBI’s activities against our citizens from the 50s to the 70s. Hoover mounted something called COINTELPRO, the famous portmanteau for burglary, wiretapping, blackmail, and murder sanctioned by the FBI. Included in the murders were Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, civil rights organizer Viola Liuzzo, Malcolm X (a COINTELPRO agent is seen kneeling over Malcolm’s body at the death scene), and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (See William Pepper’s An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.)
The COINTELPRO crimes, in these post-history times known to few, are monstrous. An example: Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI “informant,” infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 60s. He was with a Klan gang the night Viola Liuzza, a white church-going civil right worker was murdered in Alabama in 1965. The triggerman for the murder was Rowe, who assisted the Klan – rather than informed on it – on behalf of the FBI.
The supervisor of COINTELPRO was William Sullivan, the Tom Sizemore character who barks a few nasty words at Liam Neeson in Mark Felt. In November, 1977, Sullivan was scheduled to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which reopened the JFK and King cases. Unfortunately, Sullivan was shot dead near his Maryland home by a twenty-two-year-old man who mistook him for a deer, although Sullivan was shot so cleanly through the neck it is unimaginable that the shooter couldn’t identify his target. Incredibly, the killer was fined $500 and had his hunting license suspended – not even a low-grade manslaughter charge was filed. Apparently, the family’s satisfaction that Sullivan’s death had been an “accident” was sufficient to stop the wheels of justice from turning.
The ever-paranoid Hoover put Felt close to Sullivan; Felt folded his own anti-left program into COINTELPRO. He began a burglary and wiretap operation into anyone with leftist affiliation as a rationale for tracking down the Maoist/anarchist Weather Underground; this is fascinating, since filmmaker Emile de Antonio found organization members without hardly trying for his 1976 documentary Underground. Felt’s spy program gave him a deliberately wide berth to go after the kind of political ne’er-do-wells Felt and his idol Hoover detested. Felt was eventually prosecuted for his antics, but was pardoned by Ronald Reagan.
This is a comment on a film, but I was obliged to offer the reader some information (which is available if one cares to look) given the irresponsibility of what passes for political cinema. Mark Felt is being touted as a very “relevant” film given our immersion in the nightmarish Trump age, but the Watergate period bears almost no resemblance to the present, although state power still perpetrates crimes, to be sure, here and abroad. But the early 1970s were a time when we still enjoyed an adversarial culture, with a Democratic Party that tilted more to the left than its current incarnation, and controlled Congress.
The story of Deep Throat/Mark Felt as told in the current film (and All the President’s Men in 1976) is a consoling fantasy that gives the viewer reassurance that the press and the authorities are on duty rooting out the bad guys, as they perform watchdog functions for our interests. Let us hold out for the press (a major target at the present moment) in the hope that some light comes into our lives.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He currently finds solace in Angela Hewitt’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations.