Major sociopolitical changes obviously influence film and media writ large, but of all the historical specters haunting cinema, Watergate is one of the most interesting. The event (and the entire political milieu which surrounded it) would inspire a wave of much more cynical, paranoid conspiracy thriller classics, from The Parallax View and The Conversation to Marathon Man and Three Days of the Condor. And yet, not much actual media has focused on the event itself.
Perhaps that’s because All the President’s Men was such a masterpiece, that it seemed foolhardy to ever attempt telling the Watergate story again in any cinematic medium (though the underrated BBC docuseries, Watergate, is excellent). Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon in a three-hour biopic from Oliver Stone, and even that is barely remembered today. Or perhaps it’s because the actual story of the scandal is genuinely stupid, filled with laughable men and pathetic plots. Granted, it was a big deal at the time. Men from the White House, working to re-elect Nixon, broke into the Democratic National Convention and bugged their offices before initiating a massive cover-up campaign.
Or maybe that’s it. Maybe 50 years later, it’s not that big of a deal in American politics. We’re used to Bill Clinton’s oral in the Oval, Hunter Biden’s laptop, Trump’s hush money schemes with porn stars and attempted insurrection, Hillary’s emails, Haliburton, drone strikes on innocent civilians, and so much more. Bugging your political competitor’s office? Try threatening to jail your political rival and lock her up, or having the NSA bug every civilian’s device. In a sick, sad way, Watergate just isn’t that sexy today.
White House Plumbers hears those warnings and responds with a firm, “Hold my wire-tap.” Instead of attempting to make a serious dramatic thriller out of the political scandal, or use it as just an allegory for the world’s recent and more lurid scandals, White House Plumbers comes across as an extremely confident and efficient character study and political comedy. The new HBO miniseries is closer to the Coen brothers’ comedies (Burn After Reading especially, but also Hail Caesar) than it is to ’70s political thrrillers like The Day of the Jackal, and that’s a good thing. With a tight five episodes and a wonderful cast, White House Plumbers is a bizarre, funny, and very entertaining history lesson.
HBO’s Watergate Comedy Dives Right In
White House Plumbers jumps right into action, never really catching the audience up to speed. That’s mostly fine, though, as the series is more interested in exploring these characters and what their ridiculous commitment to a corrupt president and system says about patriotism, government, and politics.
The series begins a bit after the leaked revelations of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the extent to which the American military had bombed and destroyed Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The free love dream of the ’60s had died, the Vietnam War was an unending nightmare, banks and lobbyists were taking over Washington, and the government was hiding things from you. This was the climate which led to such paranoid conspiracy films, and Watergate only exacerbated it.
President Nixon is worried about the upcoming election, and a clandestine task force of sorts is organized, ostensibly led by G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Initially called the ‘White House Plumbers’ (because they fix leaks), the two began by seeking out dirt on a reporter that Nixon hated, Jack Anderson, before becoming friends and developing a series of wild plans to help Nixon beat his Democratic opponents, becoming ‘The Committee for the Re-election of the President.’ Ultimately, the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell, approves a reduced version of one of their ideas — bug the DNC.
Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson Are White House Plumbers
Hunt enlists a group of Cuban freedom fighters he knew from his Bay of Pigs days, and this ungodly mess of CIA, FBI, and mercenary misfits stake out the DNC and put their plan into action. If the suave thieves of Ocean’s 11 all had their IQs halved, they would look somewhat like these White House Plumbers. The men run into problems, hide their failures from their bosses, and hide everything from their families.
It’s fundamentally Liddy and Hunt’s story, though. Both were larger-than-life men utterly committed to the cause, but none more so than Liddy. With his thick mustache and pompous voice, the hyperbolic man’s existence is almost an exercise in self-mockery. After he went to prison for Watergate, he would become an author, an actor, and a talk radio personality for two decades. He told his listeners to shoot federal employees in the head, and said that he uses pictures of Bill and Hillary Clinton for target practice. He was a loud, proud, and possibly insane man with a deep affinity for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Justin Theroux steals the series as Liddy. Both he and Woody Harrelson (as Hunt) are very over-the-top here in performances that could easily veer into caricatures, but they manage to humanize these men while maintaining their ridiculousness and hilarity. Harrelson is all gruff and growly, a terrible father and failed family man who’s only real passion is the vague concept of ‘for love of country.’
Theroux, though, takes the cake, and is as funny as he is intimidating. He’s a true madman, a loyalist who would die for Nixon, who happily shreds bundles of cash and plots his own assassination to further the cause. He blasts a record of Hitler’s speeches as if it was Metallica. He’s the best Coen brothers character they never created.
David Mandel and a Great Cast Make the Jokes Work
White House Plumbers inevitably gets darker and more depressing as its brisk five hours marches forward. Even if you don’t know all the manic minutiae of the Watergate scandal, one can easily surmise that it does not end well; if it had, we would’ve likely never known about it. The last two episodes of the series personifies that grim political catchphrase, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Watching the walls close in around Liddy and Hunt, one almost feels sorry for them. That’s an artistic accomplishment.
David Mandel directs the series (created by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, based on the book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil “Bud” Krogh and Matthew Krogh), and does a phenomenal job. It moves swiftly without being confusing, and lands all its little jokes by basing them in the characters. Mandel is well acquainted with deeply cynical political comedy, as a writer, director, and producer on the brilliant Veep, but he also knows quirky, eccentric, laugh-out-loud comedy as a writer, director, and producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He brings both skills to White House Plumbers.
The supporting cast is excellent as well. Domhnall Gleeson, Lena Headey, Ike Barinholtz, Toby Huss, David Krumholtz, Rich Sommer, Kim Coates, Yul Vazquez, Judy Greer, and Lena Headey are all fantastic, and quick but delightful appearances from John Carroll Lynch, Gary Cole, Corbin Bernsen, and others are more than welcome. Kathleen Turner is absolutely golden as Dita Beard in a performance that deserves whatever awards they can give her. She’s only in one episode, but she dominates.
At the end of the day, though, this is Theroux and Harrelson’s show, and they own it. They make for one of the oddest buddy comedy pairings in history, but maybe this was the only real way to explore Watergate in today’s political climate. It’s kind of all a joke. A deeply human, sad, consequential, and ridiculous joke, and it lands.