Looking backward and rewriting actual historical events are the order for director Dan Mirvish’s 18½. This film is a thriller laced with enough comedy to keep it off-kilter, as the premise toys with what might have happened back in 1974 when a White House transcriber named Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) with a GS2 clearance finds herself in the middle of the Watergate scandal. She has access to the “missing tape,” an 18½ minute gap in Nixon’s recorded tapes, but it conveniently disappeared.
Understanding what is in her possession, and now in a time frame crunch, she acts fast and contacts a Times reporter, Paul (John Magaro), who concocts a bizarre clandestine gameplan to listen to this damning tape that Connie will not relinquish for fear of legal reprisal. Fitzgerald bites into her role with fierce intelligence and gusto and is a pleasure to watch as she tries valiantly to contain this Pandora’s Box situation.
The rub is that a specific tape player is required to hear this tape.
This hiccup introduces the edgy noir vibe director/cowriter Mirvish artfully brings out in his ensemble as the two leads head to the Maryland shore, and thanks to Paul’s plan, they come up with aliases to check in and secure a safe place to listen to the tape together, or so they think.
Cinematically, the 1970s are hot now, with series like The Offer and Minx reliving the era, albeit for different reasons. Dan Mirvish’s 18½ brings a bit of the groovy seventies vibe from the get-go and has a percolating pace aided by the spot-on chemistry amongst the entire cast. This fact draws you right in. And it even looks like a 1970s classic thanks to the deft lensing by DP Elle Schneider. The film comes right at you with visual tinges of All The President’s Men, an effect heightened thanks to the superb supporting cast, including Catherine Curtin (Lena) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Samuel)—especially in one standout scene where their performances deliver some of that anxiety-producing, pent-up tension similar to the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The older couple plays “spider” and circles in on the “fly” poseur couple of Connie and Paul, the two trying to secure a working reel-to-reel tape player the older couple has in their motel room so that Paul can do his job.
The supporting cast nails their parts beautifully, making this farcical yet smartly written film a mandatory must-see. Mirvish’s directorial vision of a thriller dips into just enough comedic flair to balance the story. Thanks to Vondie Curtis-Hall and Catherine Curtin’s excellent performances, the two cast as the perfect black ops couple. Curtin’s exotic, Bohemian Euro-kook Lena is matched by the expertly dependable Richard Kind who plays Jack, the one-eyed motel manager whose nattering, neurotic banter is 100% pure gold. Add to this the work of Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Jon Cryer who flesh out the uber villains Haig, Nixon, and Haldeman. And Sullivan Jones playing Barry, a charismatic “the revolution will not be televised” Gil Scott-Heron/Dick Gregory sort is not to be missed either as he eloquently connects Wonder Bread to “the Man’s” oppression in a beach-side bonfire preach.
In 18½,” co-writers Daniel Moya and Mirvish’s rendering of Watergate events manages to be both a fun watch, food for thought, and subtly comedically brilliant effort in its alt-historical premise.