The word Watergate once telegraphed a political scandal that rocked the presidency unlike anything in American history. Now, fifty years on from those events, fuzzy details of those events give the comedic thriller 18 1/2 a tough hurdle to overcome.
The Watergate scandal revolved around a 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s Washington, DC, headquarters and eventually led to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. One ongoing mystery of those days is what happened to eighteen and a half minutes of presumably damning conversation recorded at the White House. Nixon’s longtime personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed to have erased that tape accidentally.
Enter 18 1/2, where a young government transcriber, Connie (Willa Fitzgerald, Reacher), stumbles across a duplicate recording with the deleted portion intact.
Connie arranges a clandestine meeting with Paul (John Magaro, The Many Saints of Newark), a Washington Times reporter. She wants the truth to get out there but not her identity. She’s also too sharp and suspicious to give the tape to Paul, insisting that he take notes while listening to the recording so she can return it to the office with no one the wiser. The two pose as newlyweds at a nearby inn to listen to the recording in private, but when Paul’s reel-to-reel player doesn’t work, they chat up the owner and other guests to find another.
Meanwhile, Paul is jumpy that the government and others might be watching them. Is that guy in that rowboat really fishing this time of year?
Director Dan Mirvish (Bernard and Huey), with a script co-written with Daniel Moya (Scroll Back), keeps the quirky events rolling along better than Connie and Paul’s luck. Fitzgerald, whose Connie has a steel-trap memory for anything she hears, seems to run circles around Magaro, but that could be because his performance focuses on awkward paranoia. The supporting cast is gamely entertaining, including Richard Kind (East New York) as the inn’s chatty owner, Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things) and Vondie Curtis Hall (The Recruit) as an amorous long-married couple, and a group of hippies discussing revolution while tossing Wonder Bread on a barbecue grill.
“We are the yeast of the proletariat, and the time to rise is now!” one says.
Mirvish, cinematographer Elle Schneider, and stunt coordinator Christopher M. Dukes also frame and stage the action well in tight spaces, from four couples dancing the bossa nova to a knock-down-drag-out involving a crowbar.
The biggest problem with 18 1/2 is keeping track of the Watergate figures and the tape’s revelations, which should amplify the danger to Connie and Paul. Some news radio chatter and characters’ opinions on Nixon just aren’t enough to bring viewers up to speed. (I’ve seen All the President’s Men, and I needed a refresher.) While Nixon (voiced by Evil Dead favorite Bruce Campbell) is easy to identify, the others (including John Cryer of Supergirl as chief of staff H.R. Haldeman) are so of that moment that what Connie and Paul find explosive seems muddy.
18 1/2 might be enjoyable for history buffs, but others may wonder what the fuss is about.