Those of you old enough to remember, or inquisitive enough to care, will know about the notorious 18 and ½ minute gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes that were ascribed to a mistaken erasure by Nixon’s longtime secretary, Rosemary Woods. But what if another copy of those minutes existed? That is the intriguing premise of the film “18 ½.”
Writer/director Dan Mirvish (“Barney and Huey”), suggests that President Richard Nixon (voiced by Bruce Campbell – “Ash vs Evil Dead”), and his chief-of-staff Alexander Haig (voiced by Ted Raimi – “Warpath”), listened to the incriminating tape in a room which, unbeknownst to them, was itself equipped with an automatic taping system. This system created a tape of not only their comments but the original tape as well – the one that was later partially erased. Ingenious!
In this story, the tape is discovered by a government transcriber, Connie Lashley (Willa Fitzgerald – “The Goldfinch”), who in turn arranges to provide it to New York Times reporter Paul Marrow (John Magaro – “Call Jane”). They meet at a restaurant across Chesapeake Bay from Washington, where Connie explains to Paul how she got the tape, that no one knows its contents, and that she must return it by Monday morning. They agree to go to a local motel, the Silver Sand. Paul, who has a tape player in his car, will listen to the tape and take notes there. Connie is clearly the one in charge, a no-nonsense, “get the job done” type. Paul on the other hand is a nervous, even paranoid nebbish. Both actors carry it off beautifully and play off one another perfectly as they pretend to be a married couple.
So far so good. However, when they arrive at the hotel, things turn from serious to bizarre. First of all, there are many peculiar folks already staying there, even though it is off season. The motel owner, Jack (Richard Kind – “The Watcher”), is an overly friendly, meanderingly talkative character.
At this point the film becomes a comedic romp of errors, frustration, and hidden agendas as Paul and Connie’s attempts to listen to the tape are thwarted in one way or another.
The dialog is sparkling and clever, especially the lines given Campbell as a crude but hilarious Nixon. With the exception of a group of five hippie revolutionaries, the acting is excellent, especially Vondi Curtis Hall (“Blue Bayou”), who plays one half of and embarrassingly amorous older couple who befriend Connie and Paul.
If you enjoyed “Gaslit” and don’t mind historic fact taken in an alternate direction, this film will appeal. “All the President’s Men” it’s not, but if absurdist films tickle your fancy, this one is for you. According to IMDB’s rating breakdown, this film was more popular with women than men. Maybe men care less for silliness mixed with political intrigue. If so they are missing the point – the whole Watergate debacle was a surreal comedy.
The musical score is there, but generally forgettable. On the other hand, the cinematography, especially at the beginning in the restaurant, is tight and claustrophobic – perfectly illustrating this clandestine meeting.
So grab a bottle of pinot, enjoy a leisurely dinner of Chateaubriand on Wonderbread, and curl up with your sweetheart to watch this movie.
Writer/Director: Dan Mirvish
Writers: Daniel Moya
Producers: Dan Mirvish, Daniel Moya, Terry Keefe
Cinematographer: Elle Schneider
Editor: Dan Mirvish
Music: Luis Guerra
Connie: Willa Fitzgerald
Paul: John Magaro
Jack: Richard Kind
Samuel: Vondie Curtis Hall
Lena: Catherine Curtin
Bob Haldeman (v): Jon Cryer
Richard Nixon (v): Bruce Campbell
Alexander Haig (v): Ted Raimi
Runtime: One hour, 28 minutes
Availability: VOD, Starz Originals Feb. 1, 2023
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