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Two new movies about Nixon and Obama function as subtle Trump critiques

Mark Felt and The Final Year confront America’s political present by studying the past.

John Kerry and Barack Obama in The Final Year and Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
John Kerry and Barack Obama in The Final Year and Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Film festivals usually feel like little oases, places to check out of real life for a bit and soak in the glories of cinema.

But it feels like the news kicked into hyperdrive about a year ago, and no matter which festival you went to this year — from Sundance to Cannes — the real-life activities of politicians and their massive repercussions were inescapable, both outside the theater and on the big screen.

The Toronto International Film Festival is not immune to this trend, though its location in the relatively calm Canadian city (relative to France and the US, anyhow) blunts the force a bit. Even so, politics seems to be on everyone’s mind this year.

Two films playing at the 2017 festival, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and The Final Year, make the case that the best way to critique the current US administration is through oblique means — letting stories from recent and more distant history speak powerfully to the present.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House uses the real Deep Throat’s story to remind us what the FBI actually does

The hubbub over the firing of FBI Director James Comey seems like it happened decades ago, even though it was in May, and Comey’s congressional testimony was in June. Certainly by then, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House was already in post-production. But you could easily mistake the movie for a flashing warning sign reminding American viewers of the importance of both the FBI’s work and its independence from the White House.

The movie is partly based on Felt’s memoir, about his decision after a decades-long career to act as one of the most important whistleblowers in American history, Deep Throat, who gave information to the press that brought down the Nixon administration. (Felt only admitted he was Deep Throat in 2005, after years of speculation.)

In the movie, Felt is played by Liam Neeson, gray-haired and sporting his impossibly sonorous voice. But Mark Felt is so absurdly stacked with acting talent that Eddie Marsan has a one-scene bit part. Diane Lane, Ike Barinholtz, Josh Lucas, Tom Sizemore, Tony Goldwyn, Bruce Greenwood, Noah Wyle, Michael C. Hall — they’re all here, playing various figures from the Nixon administration and the FBI.

Felt was denied promotion to the FBI directorate after J. Edgar Hoover died, with Nixon’s man L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) installed in the role instead. That, the film suggests, is what finally pushed Felt over the edge into leaking information to the press. It’s not the personal slight so much as the principle of the thing: While recognizing that some of the Hoover era was marked by abysmal violations of civilians’ rights, Felt is convinced of the overall goodness of the Bureau and deeply committed to its independence, particularly from the White House it is investigating.

In truth, the white knight act feels a bit far-fetched and idealistic. But neither I nor most audience members are in any position to judge Felt’s integrity, and his insistence on the FBI’s importance does make Mark Felt a solid explainer, of sorts, about Watergate from the FBI’s point of view. It’s not as if this political era hasn’t been portrayed on film before, but one of Mark Felt’s faults as a film — its interest in laborious exposition about who characters are, what they do, and why it matters — works to its advantage for viewers who aren’t as conversant in the era. When Mark Felt concludes, the reasons Watergate unfolded as it did are a bit more clear.

Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.

Former journalist Peter Landesman (Concussion) wrote and directed the film, and his choices often feel strange; shot compositions in particular feel experimental, but not in a good way. One scene pushes, inexplicably, so close into Neeson’s face that we’re basically just examining his eyeball; frequent shots from outside conference rooms and behind trees seem to be giving the impression that Felt is being followed, but other shots undercut the suggestion.

But for its faults as a movie, the story is still compelling as a bit of history, and more so in the midst of a presidential administration that at times seems to be taking all the wrong lessons from Nixon. And whenever special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller begins to wind down his case, the FBI’s independence will be back in the headlines. Mark Felt is worth a watch before that happens, to remind us what’s at stake.

The Final Year follows Obama’s foreign policy and diplomacy team through a turbulent 2016

Much more recent and sobering is Greg Barker’s documentary The Final Year, which chronicles a part of American government that’s often opaque to, or simply ignored by, most American citizens: the team that handles foreign diplomacy and policy.

The Final Year focuses on four key figures in the previous presidential administration — Secretary of State John Kerry, White House adviser Ben Rhodes, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Barack Obama himself — as they navigate the challenges of the foreign crises and opportunities in the last year of Obama’s administration.

Barker and his team mostly take a fly-on-the-wall approach, and they were apparently very good at it. All four of those figures, plus others (including National Security Adviser Susan Rice), muse candidly and not particularly guardedly in front of the camera about the implications of their choices and their frustrations with the limits of what they can do. Rhodes — who has to deal with an explosive New York Times Magazine profile about him published during the making of the film — is particularly straightforward, expressing frustration about the American press and electorate’s lack of interest in what’s happening abroad in favor of obsessing over then-candidate Donald Trump’s tweets. But even Obama, whose guarded nature drove some reporters and voters up the wall, seems to have let his guard down at times, talking backstage at events to the cameras about events he’s just experienced and the impact of them.

The Final Year walks and talks like a defense of a controversial diplomacy-first Obama doctrine, and while it doesn’t shy away from those arguments — particularly around Syria — it does make clear that there were frequent disagreements even on the president’s team about the best course of action, and shows how tricky the business can be. Many of the events the team regard as most significant, like the president’s address at Hiroshima, are almost footnotes in the American media.

What comes across most clearly in The Final Year is how hidden the work of diplomacy and negotiation really is, especially in a country like the United States. The number of people who care enough to know what’s going on in all of the countries where the US has interests — whether because of national interest, past actions that are still wreaking havoc (as in Laos), or present human rights violations like those of Boko Haram in Nigeria — is low, and so much goes unnoticed.

Samantha Power and Barack Obama in The Final Year
Samantha Power and Barack Obama in The Final Year.
Official White House photograph

The Final Year ultimately plays like a tragedy, at least if you’re sympathetic to that ethos. The whole film consists of people trying to establish policies and agreements that will last beyond the end of the Obama administration, and for the most part they expect a new president who will be sympathetic to many of those views, even if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s ideas about foreign policy at times conflicted. It’s not till very late in the game that the need to safeguard against a Trump presidency’s foreign policy becomes clear — and by then, it’s largely too late. Nearly all of the accomplishments most valued by the team have been struck down or heavily criticized in the past year. In fact, the Trump administration extended its renewed trade embargo on Cuba (the lifting of which is one of Rhodes’s most cherished projects) while the film was opening at TIFF.

In that sense, much of the film operates as a rebuke to Trump, whether explicitly or implicitly. It’s hard to miss a pointed bit in which Obama tells a group of troops that he has spent time mourning “with Gold Star families” in the same stretch of months in which Trump was feuding pointlessly with a Gold Star family that dared to criticize him. And some shots of Vladimir Putin shown during the team’s frustration about the botched Syria ceasefire are telling, especially because they’re followed by a statement from Rhodes that the US took too long to separate Putin from Russia, the country — which we now know happened while the administration was struggling to address Russian meddling in the election. Putin, Rhodes says, doesn’t work in Russia’s best interest; he works in Putin’s best interest. It sounds like a warning.

But The Final Year’s warning to Americans is delivered sideways, which is the film’s preferred methodology; it mentions Trump and his campaign as little as possible. Instead, the movie just lets its subjects speak and trusts the audience to connect the dots.

That’s an effective and even illuminating approach, though it can make it hard not to watch the film through parted fingers. But the greatest thing about The Final Year, and the part that needs repeating over and over in our abrasive, attention-seeking political age, is that no matter what your method for bettering the world is, the real work is usually done quietly, in ways that defy pomp and fanfare.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in US theaters on September 29. The Final Year premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is awaiting a US release date.