It’s been over half a century since the Watergate affair, which is still publicized as the “biggest political scandal in US history”. There’s nary an adult in the Western Hemisphere unfamiliar with the White House wiretapping events of 1972, which led to the Nixon administration’s destruction. A staggering number of 68 people were indicted, with 48 (the show says 49) convicted on various counts regarding their involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building or their attempts to cover the incident up.
Contemporary history following the blowup witnesses seemingly endless iterations of books, films, or television shows about Watergate to this day; many are superb. Indeed, the angles from which to work out such a bizarrely complex affair have been overabundant and amplifying, decade after decade.
White House Plumbers, a five-part HBO miniseries set to premiere on the 1st of May, tells the story through the eyes of G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) and E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson), two of Nixon’s fixers responsible for the Watergate botching, and members of the covert unit bearing the name of the show. The hotly-anticipated satire is based on the 2007 nonfiction book Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil Krogh (another convicted White House official) and his son Matthew, adapted by Veep writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck. Its angle is, mostly, the alleged bromance between the two operatives and their misguided (also alleged) belief that they are “serving their country” while being let down and denigrated by the true power players.
David Mandel directs, working with his ample experience in political satire as the showrunner of the last three seasons of Veep and veteran writer of Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lena Headey, Domhall Gleeson, and Kiernan Shipka also star, with Kathleen Turner delivering a scene-stealing turn mid-way through the series. White House Plumbers is an all-star project that entertains with stellar performances and typical caustic HBO dialogue but somewhat fails in terms of its own ontology and the messages it tries to convey. By the end, it also begs the question – and you know I have to make this comparison – why do we need another project about the key conspirators of Watergate merely a year after the brilliant Gaslit?
Episode 1, “The Beverly Hills Burglary”, starts in medias res, with Liddy and Hunt bringing their exiled Cuban goons to the Watergate Office Building for a break-in. “Blitzkrieg. Worked in Poland”, the Nazi-obsessed Liddy encourages his cohorts through a comically thick mustache. Hunt and Liddy shift weight uncomfortably as one of the Cubans sweats around the lock. Finally, the lockpick blurts: “I don’t have the right tools.”
A disclaimer quickly informs us that there had, in fact, been four break-in attempts at the Watergate. This was attempt No. 2. The epoch is amusingly detailed, with a backdrop of lounge jazz oscillating between smoothness and suspense, and the setup typical for sketch comedy, featuring lots of animated close-ups and frog-eye shots. It’s a fitting introduction to what is presented as a hilarious tale of two maladroit White House operatives who came up with myriad bizarre ideas on how to fix press leaks and smear the Democrats in the process.
Going slightly back in time, we’re treated to a romanticized, thoroughly comedic account of how Hunt and Liddy met, and especially how they came together as members of the notorious Committee to Re-elect the President (mockingly acronym-ed CREEP) and the White House Plumbers (actual name) team. There’s nothing here on the historical side that could even remotely spoil the account 50 years on, so the trajectory of events follows a documentarian narrative: Liddy and Hunt embark on a number of adventures in “leak fixing”, finally break into the Watergate building, are discovered, prosecuted, then all hell breaks loose. The basic details don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Nixon’s downfall and the loss of the last morsels of trust Americans had in their democracy.
What makes White House Plumbers somewhat intriguing and compulsively watchable is the true story antics of Liddy and Hunt, their relationship with their families, and the overall solid work of the entire cast. Harrelson excels in chewing the lines up with a pronounced lispy underbite and plays a maladapted, frustrated father and husband amusingly well. Domhall Gleeson is effortlessly persuasive as the conniving Junior Counsel John Dean, and Tony Plana lights up every scene as one of the team’s Cuban henchmen, Eugenio “Muscolito” Martinez.
Theroux, especially, is spellbinding as the bizarro Liddy, a self-aggrandizing, self-proclaimed patriot de luxe who loves only conspiracies more than he loves Nazi mythologies. If there’s anyone who could successfully follow up on Shea Whigham’s unhinged, pitch-perfect portrayal of Liddy in Gaslit, it’s Theroux. Watching his nuanced but firecracker embodiment of Liddy’s obsessive commitment to the nation (actually, himself) delivered with ease, one could only wish he acted more. On the other hand, the many brilliant women who ought to have expanded the thematic scope of the series by exploring the often sordid US family dynamics of the ’70s are given too little to do.
Kiernan Shipka barely makes an impact, and Kevan, the only child Hunt isn’t ashamed of, is mostly away in college making her parents proud while her older hippy siblings (Zoe Levin and Ian James) still cohabitate with the forebears. The multitalented Judy Greer is reduced to a one-dimensional caricature as Liddy’s faithful wife Fran. What little dialogue she’s given serves no purpose other than to unconditionally aid and abet her deranged husband, even when he blasts Nazi hymns to guests or shoos children away with real guns.
Most perplexingly, Lena Headey was supposed to be a key player as Hunt’s also CIA veteran wife, Dorothy. An asset much smarter and more capable than her husband, Dorothy ought to have been the third protagonist, but Headey is reduced to glowering in the background and calling her husband out on his many shortcomings as a father. By the time she gets room to shine in Episode 4, it is too late, the impression being that her maneuvers with the officials and media are too much of a digression from the core story, merely stalling the trials and final untangling of the Watergate knot.
Unfortunately, the poorly executed deployment of women and interpersonal dynamics outside of the Liddy-Hunt dyad isn’t the only issue. White House Plumbers leans into its several premises hamfistedly, too often with uneven results. The sketch comedy aspects are dubious as this history is more odd than comical. Theroux and Harrelson are both comedic geniuses, but any hilarity of Liddy proposing to pay hippies to piss on the stage at the Democratic National Convention is offset by his deadpan offers to murder anyone, including Hunt, who gets in the way of his fantasy of a “perfect nation”.
As said, the familial dynamics that ought to expound on the positions of these individuals and the working man in the early ’70s society are mostly reduced to simple clichés and fall flat. We get the idea of these guys searching for meaning in their lives through questionable (euphemistically speaking) methods, but we learn surprisingly little about their characters and biographies. What we are given mostly comes in sketch form.
Then there is White House Plumbers‘ much-publicized raison d’être, the insistence of the authors and cast that we’ve “heard many accounts of Watergate, but never through the perspective of the men behind the break-in.” This isn’t true. The phenomenal Gaslit, which covers most of the events of White House Plumbers, is so similar to White House Plumbers in some aspects that it would be silly not to compare the two. One-half of Gaslit follows the same story but with more attention to Attorney General John Mitchell and Junior Counsel John Dean and less to Howard Hunt. Liddy’s aberrations are examined identically: we’ve already watched Shea Whigham’s Liddy talk about his nanny, Frau Theresa, heard him sing in German, and hold his hand over a candle flame to demonstrate unflinching commitment. The break-in attempts were also shown in detail in Gaslit using a darkly comical manner. None of the above is any less successfully executed in the White House Plumbers; it’s just very much alike to something we’ve watched recently.
Where Gaslit blows White House Plumbers out of the water is the other half of its focus: the disaster of Martha Mitchell, the Attorney General’s wife and the first person to call out the CREEP for their many transgressions against the law and common sense. Mitchell, Gaslit’s protagonist, is astoundingly portrayed by Julia Roberts. Her kidnapping and abuse, all with the purpose of covering up the misdeeds of her husband and his team, opened Pandora’s box of questions on power, politics, and the treatment of women. In psychology, The Martha Mitchell Effect is a phenomenon in which a “medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in a mental illness diagnosis when, in fact, the person is of sane mind but not believed”. This woman’s devastating and largely unknown fate imbued Gaslit with political and social relevance, hitting a home run with its emotional impact.
Such an emotional core is largely absent in White House Plumbers. We are invited to learn about the lives and minds of Liddy and Hunt but walk away empty-handed. The shaky bromance between these two men, which ought to be the cornerstone of the miniseries, doesn’t seem genuine. Perhaps most problematic is White House Plumbers‘ end. We know both Liddy and Hunt served meager sentences for their crimes. Hunt lived to be 88, and Liddy made it to 90. They both enjoyed lucrative careers post-Nixon.
Where White House Plumbers tries hard to show viewers two braindead ignoble nobodies, goofballs almost, history gives us two monstrous, calculated, and likely quite cunning men who kept being reintegrated into society and were celebrated despite their crimes. Liddy acted and appeared on a dozen shows, including Miami Vice and MacGuyver. Hunt was a beast, having planned the Bay of Pigs invasion and potentially even killing JFK (!). In Oliver Stone’s Nixon, he’s portrayed by Ed Harris. That’s how little there is to laugh about when it comes to this man.
With the satirical aspect on shaky socio-political grounds, too, the question of what White House Plumbers is trying to achieve remains. The entertainment aspect is surely there, with many gags and incredible true story details bound to elicit laughter or, at a minimum, raise eyebrows. There’s a scene in which Liddy promises to take on “the entire left”. “Sysiphys had it easy,” he solemnly exhales. Theroux’s impeccable delivery reveals two big things White House Plumbers gets right: the lengths people will go to delude themselves and the atrocities they will commit to remain in the proximity of power.
Watching these two stumbling cronies desperately searching for meaning and finding it in all the wrong places does make for poignant drama. Their (mostly) frantic commitment to serving the system that couldn’t care less about them, given that it’s based on true events, has plenty to say about how political ideology shapes our perceptions of ourselves and our individual worth to this day. It’s only lamentable that this strong material doesn’t mesh seamlessly with the more aggressively advertised elements.