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Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson anchor a darkly comic tale of the incompetence behind the scandal
"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," Hal Holbrook's (then-) anonymous Watergate informant Deep Throat tells Robert Redford's Bob Woodward in All the President's Men. Directed by Alan Pakula, the 1976 film offers a step-by-step dramatization of the Washington Post's Woodward and Carl Bernstein's attempt to unravel the story behind a mysterious break-in at the offices of Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in June 1972. However scrupulous the film remains to the facts of the case, Pakula's shadowy, foreboding style makes All the President's Men one of the defining paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, a film that could easily be programmed along films like The Conversation and The Parallax View. But the dialogue suggests another way of telling that story, one that focuses on the not-so-brightness of the break-in's perpetrators and the comic possibilities of things getting out of hand at the highest levels of American politics.
White House Plumbers is that alternate telling. Directed by David Mandel (a veteran of Veep and SNL) and written by the team of Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck (Veep, The Larry Sanders Show), the five-episode miniseries recasts the Watergate break-in (break-ins, actually) as the farcical work of men driven by desperation, hubris, and delusion with a particular focus on two central figures: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, men who bungled their way into reshaping the course of history.
Woody Harrelson plays Hunt, a former CIA officer who, as the series opens, is now working for a PR firm and writing sleazy paperback thrillers under a pseudonym. Howard's resting expression is a scowl, and his frustration is exacerbated by his home life. Though supportive, his wife (and fellow CIA veteran), Dorothy (Lena Headey), can't always mask her frustration with the direction their lives have taken. Howard's proud of his daughter Kevan (Kiernan Shipka), who's away at college, but baffled by the longhaired children who still live at home. He's a man eager to get back in the spy game in any way he can. It has to be better than this.
That chance arrives when he's approached by White House operatives to help contain the damage done by Daniel Ellsberg's leak of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. To that end, Howard is partnered with G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), a lawyer and former FBI agent with an alarming black mustache, an affected way of speaking, and a habit of suggesting his every word and gesture are part of an elaborate self-mythology. He's a self-styled intellectual übermensch, a persona he never breaks, no matter what the cost. "You'll like him. Toughest guy I know. He'll hold his hand in the flame of a candle" operative Bud Krogh (Rich Sommer) tells Howard shortly before making introductions. When Howard asks what the trick is he's told, "There isn't one. Gets third degree burns every time. Never flinches."
After they meet, White House Plumbers folds real-life events into the form of an oddball buddy comedy. Howard plays the part of the frustrated, out-of-touch suburban dad. Gordon takes on the role of his eccentric new best friend, one whose oddness can be overlooked and whose red flags can be ignored because of the fondness growing between the two men and the excitement of their new venture. Sure, Gordon speaks openly about choosing his meek wife Fran (Judy Greer) for her "Celtic and Teutonic extraction" and entertains the Hunts by playing Hitler's speeches as he chases off trespassers with a gun. But who doesn't have their quirks?
Part of what makes the comedy work is how little embellishment White House Plumbers has to do to incorporate the facts of Hunt and Liddy's story into the adventures of Howard and Gordon. The pair really were part of an effort to break into the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in L.A. in an attempt to discredit the informer, an effort that ultimately led to the dismissal of the case against Ellsberg. The series also delves into some less-remembered Watergate precursors like the story of Dita Beard (played with gravel-voiced abandoned by Kathleen Turner), a lobbyist for the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation involved in a shady attempt to coax the Nixon administration into dropping the government's antitrust efforts against the company, a story as outrageous and egregiously corrupt as the pair's more famous exploits.
In some stretches, White House Plumbers seemingly takes its cues from Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, which uses a cast filled with funny people and a sustained buoyant tone to recount what was, at its heart, a serious story of corruption and malfeasance. Mandel keeps the tone light (up to a point) and the energy high, and the expansive cast includes actors with comic bona fides Ike Barinholtz, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gary Cole, most of whom show up to steal a scene or two before disappearing back into the fabric of the story. Greer and Headey are quite good too, with Headey turning into the series' conscience as the consequences of Howard and Gordon's crimes become evident on their family's lives, the lives of others, and the country on the whole.
It's Harrelson and Theroux's show, however, and both skillfully perform the tightrope act needed to keep the series funny without ignoring the gravity of the events it depicts. Slipping into breathless rage with little warning, Harrelson plays Howard as a man driven by grievance and ideals he hasn't reexamined in decades. He feels cheated of the spotlight and his place in the world, and it's not clear where his true belief that the Democrats threaten the future of America ends and his own soul-deep need for validation begins. Harrelson's terrific. He's also been this good before. Theroux, on the other hand, is a revelation, his Gordon an unforgettably complex creation. He makes the combination of Gordon's precise diction, ceaseless self-aggrandizement, and fascist-adjacent worldview (to put it charitably) at once funny and scary, particularly in the moments when it becomes clear that none of it's an act.
Gordon is much like the series around him. As funny as White House Plumbers is, it's more than a little scary, too. Howard, Gordon and their various associates may be incompetent clowns, but they're incompetent clowns whose buffoonery nudged the levers of power more than once. Mandel, Gregory, and Huyck never abandon the series' fundamentally comic tone, but the comedy grows darker as the casualties start to mount. They're not very bright guys. Things get out of hand. But they're not the only ones who ended up paying the price for that.
Premieres: Monday, May 1 at 9/8c on HBO, with subsequent episodes airing weekly
Who's in it: Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux, Lena Headey, Judy Greer, Domhnall Gleeson
Who's behind it: Director David Mandel and writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck
For fans of: History, dark comedy, shaggy haircuts
How many episodes we watched: 5 of 5