Watergate Drama ‘White House Plumbers’ Is a Mixed (Black) Bag: TV Review
For seven seasons, “Veep” painted a portrait of the Washington elite as unflattering as it was accurate. Our nation’s capital, the satire argued, is filled with neither dedicated public servants nor savvy political operators, but bumbling sycophants whose self-importance far outstrips their actual abilities. “White House Plumbers,” the new HBO limited series, extends that argument from fictional characters to actual history. Created by “Veep” writers Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory and directed by David Mandel, the “Seinfeld” alum who ran “Veep” after the departure of Armando Iannucci, “White House Plumbers” charts the awkward bromance of two men who tried and failed to break into the Watergate Hotel. The result is a shotgun marriage of “Step Brothers” and “Slow Burn.”
The latter podcast, which outlined the series of events from the attempted bugging of the DNC in 1972 to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, was already adapted into a TV show last year. Like “Gaslit,” the Starz series led by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, “White House Plumbers” has a distinct whiff of historical hangover. As in “Veep,” the president at the center of “White House Plumbers” is never portrayed on screen outside a handful of news clips. This only adds to the sense that the show’s true, unseen subject is less Nixon than Donald Trump, a spiritual successor whose administration occasioned a flurry of projects now arriving past their moment of peak relevance. You can hear the high umbrage and 20/20 hindsight in one Watergate conspirator’s look back on his public disgrace. “If all I’ve done is undermine the average American’s faith in government,” he says, “that will pay dividends for the Republican Party far into the future.”
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While grating as a lecture, “White House Plumbers” works better as a dual character study of E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), comrades in arms whose names are as similar as their right-wing ideology. The show opens with a bait-and-switch: We believe we’re watching the fateful break-in, only for the would-be masterminds to realize they have the wrong tools. An intertitle then informs us this was actually the second attempt of four. The saying goes that history repeats itself as tragedy, then as farce. In “White House Plumbers,” it’s all a farce to begin with.
Of the two central performances, Theroux’s is the broader, sillier and more cartoonish, exaggerating the eccentric Liddy’s more extreme personality traits into a borderline caricature. Each of the series’ five episodes includes the standard disclaimers about altering facts for dramatic effect, but after Liddy starts blasting a Hitler speech at a dinner party, it’s hardly necessary. (The real Liddy did admit to enjoying some recorded speeches his German nanny played for him as a child, a detail “White House Plumbers” extrapolates into what Hunt deems a “Hitler hard-on.”) Theroux speaks in a clipped, mid-Atlantic accent that only enhances bizarre fixations like his wife’s “Celtic-Teutonic genes.”
That leaves Hunt to shoulder the show’s dramatic burden. As played by a screaming, sputtering Harrelson, he’s emasculated on all fronts: at work, the former CIA spook does a PR desk job while churning out mediocre spy fiction; at home, he’s outshone by his more competent wife Dorothy (Lena Headey, once again playing the power behind the throne) and surrounded by kids flirting with the counterculture. When Hunt meets Liddy on the staff of the White House’s Special Investigations Unit — nicknamed “the Plumbers” because “we fix leaks” — he finds both a purpose and a comrade in arms. When the pair travel to Los Angeles to eavesdrop on whistleblower Daniel Ellsburg’s psychiatrist in awful, ill-fitting wigs, they take photos of themselves beaming like a happy couple on vacation.
The dark irony of Watergate is how unnecessary, and self-defeating, it turned out to be. Nixon hardly needed help to beat George McGovern by a massive margin; by listening to their own paranoia, his administration turned a decisive mandate into a national nadir. A similar dynamic of justifying extralegal action with an existential threat of one’s own imagination remains at work today. (Just swap “antifa” for “a Communist takeover.”) But because Watergate failed, it’s safer to laugh at, making “White House Plumbers” a strange mix of somber warning and smug condescension. Its antiheroes’ idiosyncrasies are entertaining to observe, its didactic tendencies — “What kind of morons break into the DNC?!” — a price of admission. Hunt and Liddy’s idiocy is apparent enough when they bicker over methods while playing special agent.
Like many miniseries, it’s easy to picture “White House Plumbers” as a more concise feature with a tighter grip on its tone. Elsewhere in the “Veep”-verse, there’s “Death of Stalin,” Iannucci’s film that also concerned the inner circle of a fading despot. That movie was a focused dose of gleeful spite; stretched out to five hours, “White House Plumbers” veers from comedy of errors to family drama to, bizarrely, a streak of JFK conspiracism. (Hunt’s own son believed he had a role in the president’s assassination, tying the theory to his mother’s death via plane crash in December 1972. “White House Plumbers” winks at the idea to ambiguous effect.)
The extra room accommodates amusing cameos like Ike Barinholtz as crony Jeb Magruder, and Domhnall Gleeson as White House Counsel John Dean. But it also weighs down a lean, mean tale of two men’s ineptitude with unconvincing emotion. Hunt’s obsession with social standing is a delicious ingredient in his downfall; a personal check made out to a country club prompts his ultimate undoing. It’s less compelling as a look into the Hunts’ troubled marriage. In parts, “White House Plumbers” delivers a tongue-in-cheek, amply resourced reenactment from a cast and crew of HBO regulars. As a whole, the show can’t quite mount a convincing case for another piece of Watergate media, though it has fun playing in the margins.
“White House Plumbers” premieres on May 1 on HBO, with new episodes airing Mondays.
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