‘18 1/2’: Yes, another Watergate movie, but this one’s fun and totally fictional
A stenographer finds the missing Nixon tape and encounters plenty of oddballs on her way to releasing it in the subversive comedy.
We’ve seen the Watergate scandal filtered through a myriad of lenses through the years, from the greatest journalism movie ever in “All the President’s Men” (1976) to the solid made-for-TV effort “The Final Days” (1989) to the wickedly funny satire “Dick” (1999) to the disappointingly flat “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017) to the recent Starz limited series “Gaslit.” Just when you thought we might have covered this dark chapter in American history from all angles, along comes the slyly subversive, occasionally loony and thoroughly entertaining “18 ½,” which is fictional and yet contains essential truths and clever insights throughout.
If you’re of a certain age or a student of American political history, you know that “18 ½” reference. When the Nixon White House tapes were unearthed, we learned the president’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had inadvertently (we think) erased some 18 ½ minutes of a recording made on June 20, 1972. The conceit of director Dan Mirvish’s film has a stenographer named Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) working a low-profile gig at the Old Executive Office Building when she comes across a recording of Nixon (voiced by Bruce Campbell) and White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (Jon Cryer) discussing the looming Watergate scandal while actually listening to portions of the supposedly erased 18 ½ minutes. Connie essentially has the missing tape!
In the paranoid atmosphere of Washington, D.C., in 1974, Connie doesn’t dare take her findings to her superiors; instead, she contacts New York Times reporter Paul Marrow (John Magaro) and they arrange for a clandestine meeting. Connie will play the tape for Paul and he can take notes, but she’ll need it back before the weekend is over so she can return it without anyone in her office ever knowing it was gone.
Adventure Entertainment presents a film directed by Dan Mirvish and written by Daniel Moya. Rated PG-13 (for some strong violence, language, and suggestive material). Running time: 88 minutes. Opens Friday at Emagine in Frankfort and Monday in Marcus theaters in Addison, Gurnee and Orland Park.
Time for some plot complications! Posing as a married couple to throw off anyone on their trail (paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, as Stephen Stills once sang), Connie and Paul check into the remote and vaguely ominous Silver Sand Motel. When Paul’s reel-to-reel tape recorder malfunctions, they set off to find a replacement and, in the process, deal with a collection of wacky, oddball characters, including the bumbling manager of the motel (the invaluable Richard Kind); a cult-like hippie leader named Barry (Sullivan Jones); and an overbearing, hedonistic older couple (Vondie Curtis-Hall and Catherine Curtin) who have an inordinately intense interest in Connie and Paul — perhaps because they’d like to do a little swinging, or maybe for nefarious reasons. It’s hard to tell who’s telling the truth here, and that includes Connie and Paul. The Silver Sand Motel might as well be the Nixon White House for all the subterfuge and agenda-based machinations.
Director Mirvish co-founded the Slamdance Film Festival and was mentored by Robert Altman early in his career, and you can see the Slamdance indie spirit and Altman’s influences in Mirvish’s camera moves and the casual, docudrama visuals. Neither Connie nor Paul existed in real life, and the events in “18 ½” are pure fancy. Still, this is an eccentrically intriguing and thought-provoking chapter in the long history of Watergate-based TV series and films.