Nixon, Madness & Comedy: ‘White House Plumbers’ Takes You On A Historical Farce Like No Other

John Oliver on his sensational show Last Week Tonight had a section on his show called “Stupid Watergate” based on what a former president was up to, and said it was a political scandal on the level of Watergate but everyone is stupid. Well, if White House Plumbers is to be believed the original Watergate deserved a similar prefix.

The Background

When things start to go wrong… // Credit: White House Plumbers, HBO

President Nixon is up for re-election and things seem to be going his way but after a number of people in government leak sensitive documents, it is decided by his administration to crack down on this sort of thing and discredit these individuals. Enter Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, both staunch Republicans, Liddy a former FBI agent, Hunt a former CIA employee who will run a campaign of “dirty tricks” to help ensure Nixon is re-elected. Things do not go well.

The Characters

The trial // Credit: White House Plumbers, HBO

E. Howard Hunt – (Woody Harrelson) is a former CIA agent who was heavily involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, costing him his job and reputation, and he is desperate to get back into that world. For a spook Hunt talks an awful lot about what he does, constantly name-dropping or leaving not-very-cryptic hints at what he has done. Hunt is a firm believer that the Democrats = Communists = Evil and so these “illegal” plots are entirely justified. A family man Hunt has four children and is married to Dorothy (Lena Heady), another former CIA agent who is a lot more discreet.

G. Gordon Liddy – for some reason a number of people involved in this have first names they do not use – (Justin Theroux) where do you start with Liddy? This is a man who will spontaneously hold his hand over a flame to prove his loyalty, who draws a gun on Hunt’s young son when he surprises him and proclaims that Nixon need only tell him to stand on a particular street corner and he will happily take a bullet. He seems delusional to the point of ridiculousness, convinced he is some sort of super-spy doing great work. Then there is the stuff with the Nazis. Liddy has a habit of naming things after things associated with Nazi Germany, he calls his first plan Operation Odessa, after the codename for Nazis fleeing Germany at the end of the war, at a dinner party he literally puts on a record of Hitler speeches the same way other people would put on jazz. He will point out he doesn’t believe in fascism BUT does think Hitler was very charismatic.

There is an array of other characters ranging from officials in the Nixon administration, the Cuban dissidents hired by Hunt to carry out the burglaries and more but of particular note is Lena Headey playing Dorothy Hunt (wife of Howard Hunt) playing one of the very few reasonable people in the show, you will scream at your television just for everyone to listen to her.

Behind The Scenes

The crack team of Watergate burglars //credit: White House Plumbers, HBO

The show’s creators are Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, two comedy writers who have worked on a number of successful shows, with Veep being the most relevant to this show as it has a similar tone of incompetence and madness amongst the powerful. David Mandel directs all five episodes, a director and writer of SNL, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and more. The show is based on the book Integrity, written by Egil and Matthew Krogh, Egil Krogh being one of the people in the Nixon administration who went to prison over Watergate.

The Liddys and the Hunts //credit: White House Plumbers, HBO

The show points out every episode that whilst this is based on real events some details have been changed for storytelling purposes and that is worth bearing in mind. As it is based on real events the audience does know where this is heading – failure, scandal and ruin. For all the talk of Hunt and Liddy about saving President Nixon it is repeatedly pointed out he is doing well in the polls and does indeed win re-election, but it is this scandal that brings him down. The central characters go beyond failure in their mission but bring everything down. The five episodes follow this unmitigated tale of failure through Hunt and Liddy.

The stand out in the whole show is Theroux as Liddy. Hunt is sometimes unprofessional and incompetent, Liddy is an Alexander the Great of failure, a Napoleon of delusions, a generation-defining personification of disaster. Liddy is incompetent, delusional, paranoid, obsessive, violent, potentially a Nazi, arrogant, and authoritarian and it is hard to imagine a worse conspirator…he will keep his mouth shut through a bizarre sense of loyalty and duty but he will do worse through sheer stupidity. He constantly infuriates those around him by making a bad situation much worse. Theroux expertly displays his intensity and his frustration when colleagues, friends and family members don’t go along with his ridiculous ideas.

White House Plumbers is a great historical comedy-drama which shows the great events of history are often as ridiculous as they are important.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Also Read: Political Thrillers: Between Fact, Fiction, and Hidden Agendas

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.