White House Plumbers Movie Review

White House Plumbers Movie Review | Image Credit: nytimes.com
White House Plumbers Movie Review | Image Credit: nytimes.com

In “White House Plumbers,” two seasoned Americans who aspired to be president are told their tale. That phrase may be taken in a lot of different directions, but it definitely captures the strange legacy of veteran agent G. Gordon Liddy and his partner, Howard Hunt, who oversaw the disastrous espionage activities that resulted in the Watergate disaster. As co-creators Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck’s silly but gentle miniseries portrays it, the two were hotshots who would essentially argue about who was the biggest patriot. Attorney General John Mitchell and Attorney John Dean, among their superiors, encouraged them to embed their allegiance to the nation and President Nixon into dubious and awkward work. Liddy and Hunt had established a reputation for accomplishing tasks, if not always in a positive light, for the designation of “American intelligence” prior to Watergate.

Twisted Patriotism in “White House Plumbers”

A conspiracy theory, mistrust, and paranoia were infused with the political consequences from Liddy, Hunt, their first jailed associates, the Nixon administration, etc. Those ideas have become dated on a national level fifty years later. These days, Watergate is a joke about American infrastructure. With Liddy and Hunt serving as our guides, “White House Plumbers” provides the mildest entertainment while retracing these pivotal moments in the history of the nation. However, the five-episode series finally becomes a lifeless historical drama sometimes laced with ridiculous reactions.

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With David Mandel (together with Gregory and Huyck, an alum of “Veep”) directing each episode, “White House Plumbers” initially gains a lot of momentum from the peculiarities of its two lead performances. With Liddy’s tar-black, blatantly fake-looking mustache, Justin Theroux is about as conceited as he can get, especially when combined with the agent’s unsettling fondness for Hitler’s speeches, firearms, and tendency to hold his hand over a flame to demonstrate his reliability. With even more feverish intensity, Shea Whigham previously portrayed this larger-than-life character in Starz’s Watergate and Martha Mitchell series “Gaslit.” At one point, he stole the show from Julia Roberts by fighting a mouse in a jail. However, Theroux’s self-satisfaction with the role is contagious enough; it’s evident in the way Liddy sounds royal, as though he’s already the lead character in a miniseries in his imagination. Wide-angle lenses are a common tool used by Mandel to make his figures look even bigger than life in the frame (as seen this week in David Lowery’s “Peter Pan & Wendy”). This technique is especially well-suited to capturing Theroux’s erotically charged work.

Liddy & Hunt’s Pre-Watergate Shenanigans

With the program attempting to comprehend how foolish Hunt was, Harrelson gets even more screen time than Hunt. The fact that Hunt is only a layer away from Liddy’s nutshit or that he’s a geeky dad with a hidden profession make viewers of “White House Plumbers” laugh a little. However, Harrelson’s gurgly voice and veneers carry a lot of the weight for what is otherwise a lifeless dramatic and humorous performance. There’s a sad aspect to Hunt’s character that Harrelson skirts around, which is a wasted opportunity.

“White House Plumbers” is better before it gets to Watergate. It shows in the first part how Liddy and Hunt led Nixon’s crooked Committee for the Re-election of the President because they were loud yet somehow skilled at what they did. (The term “fixing leaks” refers to their reputation.) Here, the comedy in the series is slightly elevated. Theroux and Harrelson playfully narrate incidents that contain a kernel of reality, and they particularly shine in a section concerning Ellsberg’s (the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers) therapist’s investigation. Watching Liddy and Hunt do ridiculous things like pose in front of the camera used during a break-in while wearing bewilderingly realistic false wigs is entertaining, but it gets even worse when Hunt fails to remove the video before it is discovered by the authorities. With the bittersweetness of history and a nagging feeling of how poorly thought out every decision is, it’s kind of like The Coen Brothers. Their sense of patriotism is not just feeding their conceit; it will land them in hot water.

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From Farcical Fun to Faded Charm

However, the enchantment fades quickly. “White House Plumbers'” “Can you believe this actually happened?” approach becomes less compelling when it deals with the fallout from Watergate and its supporting cast members don’t live up to the hype. In an apparent attempt to suggest a lighter tone, this self-satisfied series brings in a plethora of humorous supporting cast members, including Joel Murray, Toby Huss, Ike Barinholtz, Judy Greer, David Krumholtz, Domhnall Gleeson, and others, but then downplays their contributions. The initial savviness of the comedy is eventually overdone, and “White House Plumbers” struggles to strike a strong tone. Its brief amusement turns into a more focused examination of the events: Nixon admitted to lying and fled, while others who worked for him faced a more dramatic route to accountability that involved trials and a test of their allegiance.

Can Conspiracy Comedy Survive Reality?

“White House Plumbers” gives Hunt’s family plenty of space and devotes a lot of time to examining the effects of Hunt’s activities on the eight-member family. Hunt even begs his hippie-rocker kid to erase evidence at one uncomfortable moment. Even if the Hunts’ personal drama drags at times, Lena Headey gives a remarkable performance as Dorothy Hunt, a wife with a strong backbone and a history of adventure of her own. She even knows when to stand her ground with her husband. The familial connection takes a dangerous turn in a shocking episode four scene that sets off a chain reaction of conspiratorial thoughts within Hunt’s mind. His extensive knowledge might put the White House in jeopardy. But Nixon would never leave him hanging, this wonderful patriot?

When the show should be as constantly upbeat as the quick bongos heard throughout the music, it’s telling how the four Watergate break-in scenes—the third of which is when they got the cables and bugs into the DNC office—create a skewed rhythm. “White House Plumbers” believes that the story of the break-in is more important than a few flashy montages. Thus, we witness each of them succeeding and failing, as Hunt, Liddy, and their like ridiculous colleagues struggle with the idea of being unnoticeable (at one point, they just hire a function room at the Watergate and wait for the employees in the DNC office upstairs to empty out). There should be more humor and punch in these situations. “White House Plumbers” may incorporate both absurd and real occurrences as it looks back with shame, but there isn’t much for us to laugh at.

HBO TV Channel

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