HBO’s White House Plumbers will roll around in your head after an episode, even if you didn’t exactly expect to enjoy the experience. Perhaps I’m making an assumption that you, like many people, suffer from political fatigue and don’t quite know if you should sign up for a show about Watergate. As well, the scandal has already been explored by Hollywood on multiple occasions (including with 1976’s All The President’s Men and decades later with the comedic reimagining, Dick), and there’s the temptation to wonder whether the mess is still relevant. That’s the case not only because of the passage of time but due to what we’ve seen in the past several years.
This is where I admit that I’ve been dreading the moment when I type about how it feels awfully strange to describe Watergate as “quaint” compared to what the U.S. has recently witnessed. It’s all relative, you know? I mean, sure, these guys infiltrated the DNC, but we watched a president attempt to topple democracy by inciting an insurrection that unfolded live on TV, among other things that we don’t need to mention here. You know the drill. People are numb at this point when it comes to political mudslinging.
In contrast, the most damning part of the Watergate fiasco revolved around President Nixon’s coverup of said attempts to gather mud against the opposition. Underneath it all, though, there’s actually an entertaining story to be had. White House Plumbers gives us that look at the bumbling-burgler-filled underbelly of the maneuverings of key players, and man, were they a sloppy bunch. History tells us that the careless group was led by two former intelligence agents — Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy — recruited to help ensure the reelection of a president who didn’t really need extralegal assistance. Dozens of convictions resulted from Watergate, which remains a bona fide scandal and led to the resignation of Richard Nixon following impeachment efforts by Congress. This was a dark time in our nation’s history, but we’ve seen darker by now. Much darker.
With that twisted context in mind, the act of looking back on this low-tech disaster, however, is rather fun. Not funny in a contrived way, per se, but fun. Because this didn’t need to be painted as a comedy — the circumstances were amusing enough on their own. These idiots tossed sh*t around, didn’t cover their trails, and the burgling was spectacularly obvious. It’s almost breathtaking to consider that much (although certainly not all) of the detail is purportedly real.
Throughout the course of five episodes, Veep guys Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck (showrunners and writers) and David Mandel (director) adapt Egil Krogh and Matthew Krogh’s book, Integrity. In doing so, the team puts a satiric spin upon the experiences of Egil (played by Rich Sommer) during and after his time leading the Special Investigations Unit that was tasked with plugging information leaks. Liddy and Hunt thought it cute to call themselves “The Plumbers,” and they were Patriots in the way that the word is a right-wing badge of honor these days.
As well, much of the initial lead-up to the central burglary involves intentionally bad wigs and a fake nose and prop glasses and essentially makes Liddy look like Groucho Marx had a love child with any given Woodstock attendee. Let me also say that Justin Theroux really goes for it throughout the series. He is bitingly comical and the standout of the entire show. Whereas casting Woody Harrelson as Howard Hunt feels like a natural move — he can probably play this type of role in his sleep — placing Justin Theroux into the shoes and ‘stache of Liddy is nothing short of inspired. He warmed up for this series by playing the brilliant, paranoid, and annoying Allie Fox in Apple TV+’s recent The Mosquito Coast, and Theroux’s at the opposite end of the political spectrum here but transforms into a firecracker.
A firecracker who’s invigorated by Hitler’s speeches, that is. Theroux has an absolute ball while playing a reprehensible guy and future talk-radio host who undoubtedly influenced modern-day snake oil salesmen like Alex Jones. The supporting cast includes Domnhall Gleeson as terminally murky White House Counsel John Dean and Lena Headey as Howard’s wife, Dorothy, a CIA asset who knows too much for her own good. Their long-suffering children (Kiernan Shipka, Liam James, Zoe Levin) receive a lot of airtime to show what a shattering experience Watergate was outside of simply being a political scandal that took down a presidency. Oh, and Judy Greer pops in as Liddy’s wife, Fran, which looks like a fluffy role from the outside, but I suspect it was not the easiest gig to pull off. Kathleen Turner as dramatic lobbyist Dita Beard is an absolute hoot, too. Good actors all around.
In the end, White House Plumbers is a fairly tight portrait of a loose-as-hell f*ck up. There are some anxiety-ridden moments, and I don’t think I can hear Woody Harrelson yell, “Don’t answer the phone!” one more time. I wish I could unsee one scene, in which Theroux literally acts his ass off. You’ll know it when you see it, and like me, you may be ashamed to also kind-of enjoy it. And there’s a marvelous sense of comeuppance to be gained by watching the confidence of Hunt and Liddy sending their guys into battle, only for everything to explode on them. White House Plumbers is both fun and tragic, but thankfully, it blends those ingredients in the most effective way possible.
HBO’s ‘White House Plumbers’ premieres on May 1.