tv White House Plumbers Is a Hilarious Take on the Watergate Break-In
I'm thrilled to report how much I liked the premiere episode of the new five-part HBO miniseries White House Plumbers. It’s a raucously funny satirical comedy about the way right-wing loons E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) failed upward through the early 1970s to their ultimate peak of insane incompetence, bungling the Watergate break-in in their idiotic attempts to preserve Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Episode One covers Hunt’s destroyed CIA career after his disastrous leadership in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which he blames on “that pussy JFK.” He’s soon given another chance when he’s teamed with ex-FBI nutter Liddy to find a way to take down Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker. They’re given this assignment by Egil ”Bud” Krogh (Richard Sommer), a special advisor to Nixon whose 2007 book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons From the White House, provides the material for this miniseries. Writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck (Veep, The Larry Sanders Show) and director David Mandel (Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld) do a scalpel-sharp job of eviscerating the ideologically crazed operators behind Nixon’s most infamous “dirty tricks.”
Hunt and Liddy hatch a berserk plan to break in to the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr Lewis Fielding, and get ahold of Ellsberg’s file so they can leak it and, hopefully, destroy his credibility. Their methods include casing the office while wearing garishly fake wigs, an “old CIA trick,” according to Hunt, because any eyewitnesses will only remember the wigs.
Hunt doesn’t seem to take into account that drawing attention to yourselves everywhere you go in the first place, by wearing an auburn fright wig (Hunt) and a black, shoulder-length pageboy (Liddy) as your only disguises — while taking photos of yourselves in front of the office you’re about to break into, with the name of the psychiatrist clearly visible on the sign behind you — are perhaps unnecessarily risky maneuvers. Hunt also relies on hard-partying, right-wing Cuban operatives (Tony Plana, Yul Vazquez, and Alexis Valdés), his old cronies from the Bay of Pigs days. And they’re even wackier and more reckless.
But none of them are as mad-dog as the notorious Liddy. There’s a scene that’s pure comedy gold in which Hunt and Liddy, becoming fast friends, get together for dinner with their wives. At the last minute, Hunt cautions his wife, Dorothy (Lena Headey), who’s also former CIA, that Liddy can be “kind of a lot.” But nothing prepares either of them for Liddy’s fervent Adolf Hitler fandom, shared by his wife, Fran (Judy Greer), who acknowledges that she’s something of an Aryan trophy wife. Over cocktails, Liddy plays his favorite Hitler rally record at top volume, so that the two couples are trying to have polite predinner conversation at the top of their lungs to be heard over the splenetic shouting in German.
Still from White House Plumbers. (HBO Max)
Theroux’s absurdly black-mustached Liddy is an inspiration, and Harrelson — always delightful, but getting scarily good by this point in his career — is never funnier than when he’s playing someone earnestly trying to hold it together in the face of lunacy greater than his own. In their hands, the macho rivalry between Hunt and Liddy — both of whom are convinced they’re the one really in charge — should get ever more hilarious over the course of the series.
While denying that he’s a neo-Nazi, so intense is Liddy’s admiration for Hitler he even swears in German. (“Scheisse!”) And he has plenty of opportunity to do so as the Ellsberg job gets spectacularly botched. He and Hunt are both fired by John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson). They hardly have time to look crestfallen before Dean hires them again for a much bigger job in the Nixon White House, serving as leading figures in the Committee for the Re-Election of the President — mockingly known as CREEP. It seems Nixon regards their stupendous failure as evidence of their manly, courageous super-patriotism — which is exactly what he thinks he needs if he’s going to stay on top politically. And after all, as Liddy says, “I shit red-white-and-blue.”
And that’s exactly how Hunt and Liddy fail upward — achieving prominent positions of trust, a huge operating budget, and a big office in the White House. On the sign outside their door, Hunt has “Plumbers” inscribed. Liddy, who wanted their operations to be called “Black Ops,” and even had stationery made up to reflect that clandestine-sounding title, asks what that’s supposed to mean.
“We plug leaks,” says Hunt, exuberantly proud of his own cleverness.
Even if you feel like you know a lot about Watergate, this series has a way of making it all fresh again. It opens with shadowy figures trying to break into the Democratic campaign headquarters, only the boneheads didn’t bring the right tools to pick the door lock. A superimposed message informs us that: “There were four Watergate break-in attempts. This was attempt number two.”
And so many of the details of this debacle are true and documented, we’re assured at the start, that “no names were changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty.”
If the series can maintain the standard of the first episode, it might rival the Coens brothers’ fictional Burn After Reading for its riotous portrait of Washington DC dumbfuckery.
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Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
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