‘White House Plumbers’ Gives Watergate the ‘Veep’ Treatment and Misses Big
In All the President’s Men, the iconic 1976 film about how reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal and brought down the entire Richard Nixon presidency, Woodward’s inside source, nicknamed Deep Throat, famously says, “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
The new HBO miniseries White House Plumbers takes five hours conveying this idea that William Goldman’s Oscar-winning ATPM script got across in a couple of sentences. It is an incredibly broad and frantic comedy about how democracy was largely saved because the people trying to destroy it were incompetent boobs. It’s not without funny moments, nor without interesting performances — even though leads Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux, and Lena Headey all seem to be acting in different projects from one another — but on the whole feels like a long joke where the punchline gets repeated again and again.
Harrelson plays ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. Once a man of influence who helped plan the Bay of Pigs invasion — blaming John F. Kennedy for its failure, rather than anything he did — he now reluctantly works at a PR firm, and on the side writes spy novels that his wife, Dorothy (Headey), types up for him. Theroux is former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, an unnervingly intense man who in his spare time enjoys listening to recordings of Nazi rallies and bragging about the “Celtic-Teutonic” lineage of his wife, Fran (Judy Greer). The two are hired by the Nixon administration to act as “plumbers” who will identify and stop leaks, starting with obtaining proof that Daniel Ellsberg was acting on behalf of the Soviet Union when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. (He was not, by the way, not that the idea ever occurs to any of the Nixonites.) But they are a clown show from the start, messing up basic tasks, misreading rooms, and generally falling backward into any small successes. They make four different attempts to break into the DNC headquarters, each time being foiled by a minor but obvious mistake, like one of Hunt’s Cuban buddies from the Bay of Pigs days bringing the wrong set of lock picks with him to Washington.
Written by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, and directed by David Mandel — all three of them alums of the later seasons of Veep — White House Plumbers starts out as farce, periodically dabbles in various tragedies and troubles in the Hunt family, and at various points attempts to draw direct lines between Hunt and Liddy’s dirty tricks and the way modern Republican political operatives work. At one point, they persuade lobbyist Dita Beard (an unrecognizable and hilarious Kathleen Turner) to baldfacedly lie about statements she gave the press regarding scandalous behavior by the White House. At another, Liddy brags that, regardless of what happened with Watergate, “If all I’ve done is to undermine the average American’s faith in government, that will pay dividends for the Republican Party, far into the future.”
It’s possible that all of these ideas could cohesively be part of the same project, but White House Plumbers is unfortunately not that project. Headey is giving an entirely grounded, if slyly funny, performance as Dorothy, who assists Howard from time to time but mostly finds his devotion to the cause, at the expense of her and their kids(*), exasperating. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Theroux wildly commits to the bit, playing Liddy as a ridiculously performative creature who over-enunciates every word and carries himself like he is the toughest, most self-righteous human ever put on God’s creation. (He’s the most memorable and amusing part of the thing, and suggests a purely broad version that might work better at movie-length.) Harrelson tries to toggle back and forth between those two modes, but the Hunt of the family scenes generally feels like a different character from the guy donning silly wigs and yelling at Liddy and the Cubans.
(*) Kiernan Shipka has an oddly inconsequential role as the most successful of the Hunt children. Both she and F. Murray Abraham — in a similar nothing part as the judge overseeing the initial Watergate burglary trial — perhaps signed on because this seemed like a project that would result in many Emmy nominations. Maybe they’re right, especially with White Lotus (which features Abraham much more prominently) shifting over to the drama series categories. (But also, this is probably not the ideal time to debut a show featuring Abraham, even in a glorified cameo.)
There’s a scene in the second episode where Nixon campaign executive Jeb Magruder (Ike Barinholtz) is fuming that newspaper columnist Jack Anderson has reported on the Dita Beard scandal. Liddy asks what he can do to help, and Magruder quips that Liddy should kill Anderson. Without another word, Liddy marches out of Magruder’s office and is halfway down the street before his horrified boss can stop him. He’s baffled that Liddy didn’t recognize that he was joking, but the confusion seems on brand for a show that can’t quite decide on a tone. When one prominent character dies horribly, the show both tries to mine it for pathos and make jokes about conspiracy theories. It’s awkward at best, off-putting and insensitive at worst.
The Watergate story is so huge, and so strange, that it’s led to many dramatizations, with wildly different approaches. All the President’s Men was a white-knuckle thriller, while the 1999 Kirsten Dunst/Michelle Williams comedy Dick presented the scandal through the eyes of two giggly teenage girls. But between Starz’s Gaslit — which came and went last spring without anybody noticing it, even though it starred Julia Roberts and Sean Penn — and this, we appear to have passed the point of diminishing returns. In a later episode, the filmmakers figure out how to incorporate audio of an actor from a different Watergate project into this one. This briefly made me smile, but mainly because it was inspiring thoughts of that adaptation, as well as a desire to just watch it instead.
The first episode of White House Plumbers debuts tonight on HBO and HBO Max, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all five episodes.