‘White House Plumbers’ a second-rate series about a third-rate burglary

Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux star in overlong HBO satire that wastes time on Watergate spies’ dull home lifes.

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In “The White House Plumbers,” G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux, left) and E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) plot a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

In “The White House Plumbers,” G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux, left) and E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) plot a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

HBO

The Watergate scandal has been told from many viewpoints. The 1995 film “Nixon” focused on Anthony Hopkins’ titular character. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the focus of the seminal journalism procedural “All the President’s Men” (1972). John Dean’s memoir got the TV miniseries treatment in 1979’s “Blind Ambition.” And even Margaret Mitchell had her day in the sun in the Julia Roberts-starring “Gaslit” just last year.

Many of these projects featured characterizations of Watergate architects E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Ed Harris (“Nixon”), Daniel Jenkins (“The Irishman”) and J.C. MacKenzie (“Gaslit”) have played Hunt, the arch-conservative former CIA officer, and William Daniels (“Blind Ambition”), John Diehl (“Nixon”), Robert Conrad (“Will”) and Shea Whigham (“Gaslit”) have played Liddy, the grandstanding former FBI agent who famously would hold his hand over a candle until the flesh burned to prove his loyalty and his nuttiness.

Now comes the HBO limited series “White House Plumbers” (premiering Monday), which places these two bumbling maniacs in the spotlight. It chronicles their repeated and comically failed efforts to discredit the Democrat Party through a series of smear campaigns and break-ins, most notably the bungled break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in 1972.

‘White House Plumbers’

Untitled

Each episode premieres at 8 p.m. Mondays on HBO, streams afterward on HBO Max.

Woody Harrelson affects a distracting accent but still creates a forceful characterization of the social-climbing, sweat-soaked, temperamental Hunt. And Justin Theroux is terrific as the unintentionally hilarious Liddy, who fancied himself a black ops legend but was more like something out of “The Naked Gun.”

Alas, what should be slam-dunk material is stretched thin over five episodes, spending too much time on distracting and dull domestic subplots while taking its eyes off the Watergate prize. When you’ve got a story about two goofy but somewhat dangerous spies whose efforts to take down the Democratic opposition actually felled a Republican presidency, why waste so much time on family squabbles and troubles?

As we’re told in the publicity materials, “White House Plumbers,” created by David Mandel of “Veep,” is “a dramatization of certain facts and events. Some of the names have been changed and some of the events and characters have been fictionalized, modified or composited for dramatic purposes.”

The opening titles go for a kind of “Oceans 11” vibe. And there are times the bouncy action/comedy sequences produce some quality payoffs as we get to know our two main dopes, who are at career nadirs when given the opportunity to lead some black-ops operations that will end any chances George McGovern might have of upsetting Richard Nixon in the 1972 election.

Hunt and Liddy assemble a small team of right-wing boobs, including Cuban exiles who worked with Hunt on some shady dealings in the early 1960s, as they try to break into the DNC headquarters four times — with the fourth effort resulting in the arrest of the burglars and eventually of Hunt and Liddy, who, thinking their loyalty will be rewarded, refuse to rat out higher-ups such as John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) and Jeb Magruder (Ike Barinholtz). Spoiler alert: They’re left to twist in the wind.

That’s one of the best things about “White House Plumbers”: the steady stream of cameos from top actors playing real-life players. Kathleen Turner is a scene-stealing hoot as the Washington lobbyist Dita Beard. Gary Cole slides nicely into the role of Mark Felt, who eventually was revealed as Deep Throat. John Carroll Lynch is perfectly cast as the arrogant and corrupt John N. Mitchell. And F. Murray Abraham takes the bench as Judge John Sirica.

There’s also fine work from Judy Greer as Fran Liddy, who serves hors d’oeuvres with a smile even as Gordon blasts a record of Hitler’s speeches while they host the Hunts for dinner.

Lena Headey is a bit miscast as Dorothy Hunt, a fascinating real-life character who in this series is reduced mostly to getting into heated arguments with Howard over his willingness to sacrifice his entire family in the name of defending Richard Nixon, who barely knows his name.

There are too many scenes of the domestic strife in the Hunt household and of country club sequences, in which the hapless manager is forever trying to get Hunt to make good on his late dues. We care very little about this stuff.

If you watch old footage of E. Howard Hunt, you can see what Harrelson was going for by jutting out his jaw and barking his lines. It’s a performance that initially rankles but eventually hits home.

In Liddy’s later years, he became an unlikely media celebrity — hosting radio shows, acting, going on the lecture circuit with Timothy Leary, basically leaning into the caricature of himself.

Theroux nails that side of Liddy perfectly, creating a fascinating, bizarre, ridiculous, sometimes terrifying character.

Plenty of good work here. But one is left with the feeling there’s a terrific two-hour movie buried beneath this uneven five-part series.


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