There have been several takes on the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s.
All the Presidents Men focused on the two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, investigating the June 1972 break-in and the subsequent political cover-up that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. Starz’s Gaslit and Netflix’s The Martha Mitchell Effect both explored the truth behind and the legacy of cultural icon Martha Mitchell, wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who frequently referenced illegal activities on-going within the Nixon White House but was belittled as mentally ill. And, of course, there’s always the fictional and hilarious 1999 comedy Dick, starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, that tells key aspects of the Watergate scandal as seen through the eyes of two high school girls.
HBO’s White House Plumbers takes a particularly unique look at this political tsunami. This time, the audience experiences the scandal through a key friendship between two hugely controversial figures: E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). Call it a political bromance as only director David Mandel could have delivered.
“Our research was revelatory, uncovering things like the four break-ins and details about who the burglars were. It dawned on all of us that you’re seeing movie after movie, show after show, where the burglars are an afterthought. So, we loved exploring the idea of who were these guys, why did they do it, how did they do it, and what the effects were — really seeing it a certain way to actually ground Watergate which is a sometimes hard to understand story and concept. This perspective gives it a real concrete anchor and grounding,” Mandel explains. “The two guys were so fascinating because, to me, it was such a character study told against this famous piece of history. These guys in a way, like a great bromance, they’re kind of two halves of the same coin in a very strange way. They belong together.”
Mandel and screenwriters Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck actually provide all the trappings of a romantic comedy when bringing these two characters together. There’s a “meet cute” in the office of the Committee to Reelect the President, and they immediately dislike each other. Once they start working together, Hunt and Liddy are seen together in nearly every scene of the limited series, until they fall apart at the end.
Aside from the at-times comic bromance, Mandel also ensures that his character study offered extraordinary depth in the exploration of these controversial men. When talking about Hunt, Mandel considers the analysis of Hunt akin to the tragic Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. The limited series zeroes in on Hunt’s longing for former glory and his desperation to return to a position of prominence. Liddy, on the other hand, failed out of most of his life. He longs for the wealth and the respect that he idolizes (or what he perceives) in Hunt. He’s constantly on the outside, always looking in at the world to which he would never belong.
The combination, according to Mandel, proved extraordinarily dangerous for the American political system.
But White House Plumbers isn’t a comic take on the Watergate scandal. Despite stemming from Veep talent (Mandel, writers Gregory and Huyck, and guest cast members), the series allows the events and the story to unfold without leaning into comic elements. Sure, those elements exist. Any passing examination of the titular Plumbers’ inept plotting and bungling burglary would inevitably reveal these men as head-shaking disasters.
But the creative team didn’t write it that way.
“It’s all there, and it’s all wild. It’s all, for the most part, based on historical record. Liddy had a penchant for Hitler. He credits some of Hitler’s philosophy with allowing him to gain stamina, will, and ability to overcome certain fears in his life. It’s all insane,” Mandel shares. “What we tried not to do and where I drew the line, in Veep, we wrote jokes. We wrote very elaborate jokes that maybe real humans don’t say. In White House Plumbers, everything is shot and performed as if they’re saying that, as if they’re telling you the weather. Watch how Justin as Liddy explains Hitler’s ideas in a very matter of fact way, and the Hunts are shocked and horrified. It is a very unique tone. It is a tone that is maybe confusing at first to people, but I think, once you get used to it, you do start to really enjoy how different it is.”
Tone aside, Mandel does believe in the critical importance of revisiting this unbelievable story. As the saying goes, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. He understands that Americans often possess a willful amnesia when it comes to their politics, and he believes that you cannot examine our modern political environment without acknowledging the direct lines all the way back to the Watergate scandal.
The parallels, according to Mandel, are unmistakeable, although they’re not the main course served in White House Plumbers.
“You cannot think about what’s going on in modern politics today without drawing that line right back to Watergate both in terms of the presidential abuses as well as the true believers. These are people who work in the name of a president and are willing to sacrifice everything even though they are often the first guys to be tossed over the side of the boat when the time comes,” Mandel explains. “It’s all in there. There are times when you’re hearing the way members of the Nixon administration, people like Liddy and Hunt, are talking about Democrats as communists, as enemies of the country, that certainly are going to ring bells for anybody that’s paying attention right now. I want to ring those bells, but not loudly. It’s there for the taking.”
White House Plumbers streams exclusively on MAX and airs its series finale today, May 29.