Political Film Review #548

Sporting events provide an arena for political conflict. Take the year 1973, for example, when male chauvinism was in full display in tennis. After President Richard Nixon telephones Billy Jean King (played by Emma Stone) to congratulate her for winning the Grand Slam of Tennis, she is offered less money for the next match compared to her male counterpart. Refusing to accept such inequality, even at the cost of being barred from the male-dominated Lawn Tennis Association, she finds a lucrative new sponsor (Virginia Slims) and tours the country in match after match. But male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is dying to play against her in a tournament so that he can collect enough money from the event to pay off his gambling debts. Consequently, Battle of the Sexes, co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valeria Faris, becomes a duo-biopic. Riggs is separated from his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) due to his gambling addiction. King, meanwhile, finds pleasure having sex with her hair stylist, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), something that disappoints her loyal husband Larry (Austin Stowell) but must be kept secret lest her reputation will become tarnished. Billy Jean is so emotionally torn that she then loses a tournament with Margaret Court (Jessica MacNamee). Riggs, who acts like a punk with so many silly costumes on the court to get attention, then challenges Court and wins. The male chauvinists then congratulate themselves that all their stereotypes about the “weaker sex” are true. But that galvanizes Billy Jean to accept Riggs’s challenge, so the tennis match of the century is held in which 55-year-old Riggs is resoundingly defeated by 29-year-old Billy Jean. Titles at the end carry the duo-biopic forward: Riggs, evidently humiliated by his loss, is reconciled with his wife. Billy Jean pairs up with the love of her life without losing face, and the couple even serves as godparents of children of her former husband and his new wife. The Political Film Society has nominated Battle of the Sexes as best film of 2017 in promoting human rights. MH

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House explains who was the “Deep Throat” leaking damning information about President Richard Nixon’s role in Watergate to Time magazine and the Washington Post. As third in line to the FBI Director, Mark Felt (played by Liam Neesom) expects to be promoted when J. Edgar Hoover suddenly dies during the 1972 presidential election campaign after the Watergate burglary. Felt quickly has Hoover’s secret file destroyed just before Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) as acting director. Gray then tries to work with Felt, who becomes Associate Director. But Gray is assigned not only to send the then-nonexistent secret file to Nixon but also to shut down the Watergate investigation, infuriating Felt that politics is intruding into the independence of the FBI. The White House suspects that Felt is Deep Throat but tries to isolate him by having immediate subordinates go around him, be reassigned to field offices, or possibly wiretapping him, and he is later fired. Felt leaks information about Nixon’s effort to obstruct justice to the press, also ensuring that Gray would not be confirmed as full-time FBI director.
Felt’s personal life is also revealed. Having been reassigned to various field offices in his early career with the FBI, his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), evidently alienated by having no permanent home and by Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane), had joined the Weather Underground, so he seeks to find her—and does. But in the process of searching for her, he orders the FBI without a legal warrant to intercept mail as well as break into and wiretap homes of members of the Weather Underground, a civil liberties offense for which Felt is found guilty during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, though he is pardoned by President Ronald Reagan during his appeal. Titles at the end fill in historical details, including Felt’s public admission that he was Deep Throat in 2005, his death in 2008 and his book written with John D. O’Connor, A G-Man’s Life (2006).
Director Peter Landesman did much research for the film, evidently consulting Felt’s FBI file, which was released to the public in 2012. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, which has a narrative that contradicts some elements in the book All the President’s Men (1974), has been nominated by the Political Film Society as best film exposé of 2017. MH