‘White House Plumbers’ Spins Watergate Into a Tragicomedy With Much Relevance
The world of government and intrigue is full of keen minds, even brilliant ones, and then absolute human farce. HBO’s five-part “White House Plumbers” turns the Watergate scandal into a tragicomedy of human dimensions, from the vantage point of the foot soldiers. Long before Trump, the administration of Richard Nixon defined paranoia and dirty tricks in the American political consciousness. Fifty years later and the former’s infamy threatens to overshadow the latter. Yet our ongoing political battles give a fresh relevance to this story. Hubris eventually forced Nixon to resign, but as made clear through hilariously good acting by Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, the “yes” men who botched everything, thus allowing the scandal to unfold, were just as egotistical.
It is the early ‘70s and Nixon is gearing up to run for a second term. E. Howard Hunt (Harrelson) is a former CIA officer now working at a PR desk and fancying himself a spy novelist. G. Gordon Liddy (Theroux) is former FBI and obsessed with Nazi culture for its rigid discipline. They come together as part of the White House’s “Special Investigations Unit,” which is designed by Nixon’s staff as a way to plug leaks to the press. Their first major target is Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers, exposing confidential information regarding U.S. policy in Vietnam. To target Ellsberg, Hunt and Liddy devise schemes such as breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to get compromising material. For a team, Hunt brings in Cubans he knows from his days working on failed plots to overthrow Fidel Castro. It doesn’t quite go as planned but the pair still gets promoted to work in the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Now their focus is the Democratic Party and Nixon’s opponent for 1972, George McGovern.
“White House Plumbers” is created by Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory, two writers from “Veep” who know the terrain well. Former “Veep” showrunner David Mandel directs the episodes. One can sense a bit of the influence of another “Veep” creative alumni, director Armando Iannucci, whose own “The Death of Stalin” is one of the great recent political satires. As in that film, the idea here is to take the facts and heighten them. The real E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy were not as goofy as their onscreen portrayals, just watch any available interview on YouTube, but their antics and personality traits certainly lend themselves to exaggeration. They become both sinister and likable as misfits moving through the darker waters of the American government.
Hunt, who did indeed write novels and smoke a pipe (look up the essay “The Art of E. Howard Hunt” by Gore Vidal), basks in attention. While interviewing two hookers for a scheme, he delights in sharing about exploits in Guatemala, or being the CIA contact who received Che Guevara’s severed hands after the revolutionary was killed in Bolivia. Harrelson’s knack for comedy and seriousness shine well in such moments. Hunt is the one drawn best with a view into his private life. He juggles political intrigue with dealing with a rebellious daughter, Lisa (Zoe Levin), who is influenced by the counterculture and decides to drop out of college. Unlike her brother John (Liam James) and model straight-A sister Kevan (Kiernan Shipka), Lisa is the one who sees through dad’s cheerful façade. No doubt this helps compel her to show up high with John to a country club gathering and call someone a “racist pig” while standing up for a Black waiter, embarrassing the image-conscious Hunt.
Theroux’s Liddy is darker and comically edgier. Like the real man, he has a disturbing admiration for Nazism and stuns Howard and his wife Dorothy Hunt (Lena Headey) by playing a Hitler speech after dinner. It’s a scene with great comedic timing in how it stretches out the awkwardness. Liddy shows off his luger and hates hippies. His children are made to stand in file to greet the Hunts with prepared phrases. These are both Cold War men, but Liddy hates “commies” with a more disturbing strain than Hunt. His own wife, Fran (Judy Greer), doesn’t mind at all that Gordon tells guests he went for her due to her “Celtic-Teutonic genes,” a phrase he uses later when referencing Caucasians in general. Where both men connect is in their addiction to living in the shadows, cooking ideas for serving their masters and the rush of living in the real-life equivalent of a spy novel. You almost feel a dogged soft spot for these curious men when they try out wigs, clumsily plan raids or show off their guns.
The satire’s real bite is in how all of it was at the service of crooked politics feeding out of Nixon’s paranoia. As in “All the President’s Men” and “The Post,” Nixon himself remains a distant figure we only catch glimpses of in news clips. It’s his inner circle, such as Attorney General John Mitchell (John Carroll Lynch), re-election committee director Jeb Magruder (Ike Barinholtz) and White House Counsel John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson), who approve or dismiss Hunt and Liddy’s ideas. Some sound truly crazy, but the record shows they were pondered, from setting up Democratic Convention attendees with prostitutes for blackmail to arranging disturbances with actors dressed as hippies. Ironically, it was one of the simpler machinations, the wiretapping of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building that exploded into a national crisis. The series opens with Hunt and Liddy’s crew attempting to break into the Watergate for around the fourth time, to give us a sense of how determined and equally incompetent it all was. The break-in that resulted in arrests was mostly due to the original wiretaps not working. As someone tells Liddy after the incident, McGovern was already floundering, so all these antics were plainly stupid.
Despite the years of intrigue surrounding these figures, the show never gets too conspiratorial in its thinking beyond the main facts. Hunt has long been a name mentioned around JFK assassination buffs, and the writing winks at it when Liddy asks him where he was the day of the murder. He is also eternally haunted by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, when the U.S. attempted to overthrow Castro with an army of Cuban exiles. Now some of those Cubans form part of Hunt and Liddy’s crew, lovingly played most notably by Tony Plana, Nelson Ascencio, and Alexis Valdés. Their characters are written like a lively crew that coalesces around Hunt, who speaks and curses with them in Spanish. Eventually, even Aryan-obsessed Liddy will join in the camaraderie. By lightening these characters, “White House Plumbers” challenges us to wonder who the real villains were in Watergate. Hunt and Liddy broke the law, but to them they were following orders or doing a job. It isn’t an excuse for their behavior, but they went to jail while Nixon resigned and was eventually pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
The Nixon years have provided material for some great movies. Harrelson’s Hunt is a total contrast to the focused, intense version Ed Harris played in Oliver Stone’s great and overlooked “Nixon.” Comedies have been done before, such as 1999’s “Dick.” But “White House Plumbers,” despite getting too whacky at times, is a refreshing reminder of how relevant this moment in history remains. There are still fascists prowling around the system while politicians say the most strange, outlandish things in an era where even basic reproductive rights are being rolled back. In the grand scheme of things, Nixon did much worse than Watergate, such as bombing Cambodia or the coup in Chile. He also started the EPA and lowered the voting age to 18. Now you don’t even get that kind of balance. As ludicrous as the players in this show seem, they would still be right at home in Washington, D.C. today, if not taken aback at how much crazier it has become.
“White House Plumbers” premieres May 1 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.