The Pitch: There are many, many quotable lines in the 1976 film All the President’s Men, but perhaps the most incisive and timeless remains Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook)’s description of the men responsible for the infamous break-in at the Watergate Hotel: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
That line essentially serves as the thesis statement for White House Plumbers, a five-part limited series about the crimes committed by E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) in the 1970s, seemingly in the name of President Richard Nixon. While the series begins, much like All the President’s Men, at the Watergate one fateful night, the abrupt pivot of the opening sequence is just the beginning of a descent into chaos.
Stranger Than Fiction: The primary appeal 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 Huyck and director David Mandel explore the true-life facts of Hunt and Libby’s actions. Each episode ends with a twist on the standard legal disclaimer about dramatizing historical events, immediately confirming that at least one surprising event depicted on screen actually happened — and these real-life twists prove to be genuinely shocking in context.
As someone with more than a passing interest in the Watergate affair, I was surprised by how much I already didn’t 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 comes to the deeper levels of conspiracy generated by Hunt and Libby. The botched burglary attempts, the scatological plans for sabotage, the moments when ego overrides good sense… Deep Throat knew what he was talking about.
Not Exactly Masterminds: White House Plumbers features an impressive 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 two-hander, the Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy show, with both men treated as comedic figures to a degree.
Some of that comes from the performances, with Harrelson pushing his natural gravelly drawl to an unnatural level, and Theroux committing so hard to the Liddy voice (overtly mannered, with distinctive diction) that he sounds like a cartoon parody of a ’30s newspaper man at times. Wildly paranoid and prone to implying things about his involvement with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 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.