dirty: There are many, many quotable lines in the 1976 movie All the chief’s menbut perhaps remains Deep Throat’s (Hal Holbrook) most enduring and immortal description of the men responsible for the infamous Watergate break-in: “Forget the myths the media has created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright people, and things just got out of hand.”
This line serves as a thesis statement for White House Plumbers, a five-part limited series about the crimes committed by E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and J.J. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) in the 1970s, apparently as President Richard Nixon. As the series begins, it’s pretty much the same All the chief’s menOn one fateful night at Watergate, the surprising pivot of the opening sequence is just the beginning of its descent into chaos.
stranger than imagination: The basic call of White House Plumbers, for anyone with a passing interest in the scandals that surrounded the Nixon administration, comes in how creators Alex Gregory and Peter Howick and director David Mandel explore the sobering realities of Hunt and Libby’s actions. Each episode ends with a twist in the standard legal disclaimer about dramatizing historical events, immediately confirming that at least one surprising event depicted on screen did indeed happen – and these factual twists prove truly shocking in context.
As someone with more than a passing interest in the Watergate affair, I was surprised by how much I didn’t actually know: It turns out that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting couldn’t come close to capturing just how bizarre the events surrounding Watergate were, especially when it came to the deeper levels of conspiracy generated by Hunt and Libby. Failed robbery attempts, scattershot plans for sabotage, moments when ego trumps common sense… Deep Throat knew what he was talking about.
Not Exactly Mastermind: White House Plumbers It features a great cast, including Kiernan Shipka, Ike Barinholtz, David Krumholtz, Rich Sommer, Gary Cole, Toby Huss, John Carroll Lynch, Tony Plana, and Kathleen Turner. But at its core, it’s a show duo, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, with both men treated as somewhat comical characters.
Some of that comes from performances, where Harrelson pushes his natural drift to an unnatural level, and Theroux rocks so hard on Liddy’s voice (overtly mannered, with distinctive delivery) that it sounds like a parody of a 1930s newspaper guy at times. Paranoid and prone to implying things about his involvement in the JFK assassination, Hunt is still the more reasonable of the two, and by the end of the series, Harrelson’s take on Hunt begins to take on more human dimensions.