Watergate is one of those events that refuse to leave the collective consciousness of America. It’s been over 50 years since G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the eponymous office complex, but Watergate is still used as the model every scandal is measured against: Deflategate, Gamergate, Slapgate and countless others. Most of these were mere spats compared to the original events, stupid little controversies that faded away within the year.
Turns out Watergate was pretty stupid too — at least, according to the new The White House Plumbers miniseries airing on HBO Max.
The show is directed by David Mandel, who executive-produced and ran Veep. The show stars Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux respectively as Hunt and Liddy, the two spies who led the titular organization tasked with monitoring and sabotaging Nixon’s opponents and conducting other nefarious operations. Mario and Luigi, these men are not.
The show’s opening episode focuses on the burglary of Dr. Lewis Fielding’s office. Fielding was the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg: Hunt and Liddy were convinced his psych file contained evidence that he was a Communist agent. The episode unfolds much like a spy film: We get disguises, clandestine photographs, groovy music, covert communications and secret plans. The events would fit right in films like Mission Impossible or James Bond.
If Hunt and Liddy weren’t absolute dumbasses, that is.
The White House Plumbers is about failing upwards. Hunt and Liddy are portrayed as bumbling morons playing spy, propelled more through dumb luck and far-right fervor than any kind of actual competence. Harrelson delivers Hunt’s lines with a consistent growl, while Theroux takes Liddy in a more Bondian direction, speaking with an elegant effect that, when juxtaposed with his character’s violent proclivities and fascist sympathies, creates a terrifying personal aura.
These two leads do much of the work in this opening episode, concocting inane schemes that cause one to wonder how they got approved in the first place. We also see glimpses of the Hunt and Liddy families: Hunt’s dysfunctional relationship with his children and wife and Liddy’s authoritarian household. These subplots are compelling even when placed against the high-drama main narrative – I’m interested in seeing how they intersect.
The White House Plumbers is fictionalized, as with all “historical” shows, but it’s nearly impossible to tell at which points the lines blur. I could definitely see two spies bungling a break-in because they bought cheap walkie-talkies, didn’t bring quality lockpicks and hired incompetent idiots to assist. Somehow the show threads the needle between history and fiction such that my suspension of disbelief remained intact even though the events that transpired were totally absurd.
I’m not expecting The White House Plumbers to be 100% accurate. From the premiere, however, the miniseries looks to be an entertaining espionage romp that shows how Nixon’s paranoid house of cards fell all the way down – in perhaps the silliest way possible.