How many times has the Watergate story been told, retold, regurgitated? All the President’s Men. Nixon. Countless books, documentaries, and really bad TV movies. G. Gordon Liddy’s radio show. So how does one do a fresh take on this dark chapter of American history?
Well, you tell it from the Plumbers point of view. And you make it a comedy.
Which is exactly what HBO did. The White House Plumbers concerns a group put together by Bud Krogh to manage leaks from the White House. Krogh, whose main claim to fame was arranging Nixon’s meeting with Elvis, chooses a washed-up ex-CIA agent named E. Howard Hunt and one bat-shit insane former FBI agent named G. Gordon Liddy. Hunt, in turn, picks a group of Cubans looking for payback for the Bay of Pigs debacle.
Kogh gives them the mandate to stop leaks to the press. In reality, Hunt and Liddy have unspoken marching orders to get dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers. However, their job soon changes. Kogh is reassigned. John Dean, played rather oily by Domhnall Gleason (Yes, the Weasly’s older brother and General Hux from the Star Wars sequels.) “You’re fired. Bud’s out. You’re hired. You now work for the Committee to Re-Elect the President.” If you recall your history, this sterling organization went by the apt moniker CREEEP.
You have to do this as a comedy. What Hunt and Liddy say to each other, the way they behave, is so absurd a writer and a director have to rip dozens of pages out of Stanley Kubrick’s playbook for Dr. Strangelove. Liddy relaxes by listening to Hitler’s speeches, all the while insisting he hates fascism. Hunt is a cigar-chomping (despite not a cigar in sight), rough-voiced Mad Men reject who sees himself as the next Ian Fleming or John LeCarre. Both think they’re James Bond. Spoiler alert: They’re not.
Add to that the seventies vibe – huge American cars, the hideous suits and haircuts, and general rundown state of DC, New York, and LA – and you wonder where the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is in the mix. The entire first episode looks like outtakes from the video for that song. (Between YouTube and JJ Abrams, “Sabotage” has been coopted by Star Trek, so just don’t.)
Harrelson’s Hunt is a far cry from Ed Harris’s portrayal in Nixon. Where as Harris played Hunt as a shadowy, reticent figure, Harrelson goes for a shabby version of Don Draper – hard-drinking, philandering, and sure of himself even when common sense isn’t. Justin Theroux, however, steals the show as Liddy. Liddy was a carefully crafted cartoon character of his own making, and Theroux manages to play him without falling down like dozens of actors playing the Kennedys have with their bad accents. In fact, he steals the show.
Gleason is unrecognizable as John Dean. In the past, Stephen Collins and David Hyde Pierce played him as this timid, bewildered man trying to root out corruption. Gleason? Oh, no, Gleason’s John Dean would scare Voldemort and Kylo Ren. He portrays Dean as a sleazy co-conspirator. How that will look when Dean develops a conscience (or at least a fear of federal prison) remains to be seen.
We won’t see Nixon or Kissinger in this like we have in the past. However, there’s enough here to keep viewers busy for a short streaming run.