18½ review – offbeat comedy about sex, lies and the notorious gap in the Watergate tape

The Watergate saga is fictitiously reimagined in this kooky caper that ditches thrills in favour of meandering oddball fun

‘Thank God we’re erasing this tape. It would have killed us.” That’s the voice of Richard Nixon in Dan Mirvish’s offbeat, meandering indie, whose what-if storyline imagines a fictional White House typist in 1974 finding the infamous 18-and-a-half-minutes missing from the Watergate tapes and leaking it to the press. The gap in the recording is real: Rose Mary Woods, the president’s secretary, claimed she accidentally erased the section with a clumsy slip of the foot on a pedal (met at the time with universal scoffs of “yeah, right”). But pretty much everything else is pure fiction.

Another movie would have played it as a thriller, but Mirvish gives us an eccentric laid-back comedy that ambles along – likable enough but in danger of becoming forgettable. Willa Fitzgerald is Connie, a clever, ambitious young typist who takes her eye-wateringly dull job transcribing low-level White House meetings very seriously. What Connie discovers is not the erased 18-and-a-half minutes, but an explosive recording of Nixon (voiced by Bruce Campbell) and his White House chief of staff HR “Bob” Haldeman (Jon Cryer) listening to the deleted material in a meeting room. The two men are inadvertently caught by a voice-activated recorder. “We can’t let this Watergate thing get out of our grip. I got a legacy to think about,” Nixon growls. At the time, his administration is in full cover-up mode.

Connie contacts New York Times reporter Paul (John Magaro) and, posing as a married couple, they check into a motel to listen to the tape. But everyone in the place is so kooky the pair become paranoid, suspecting they’re under surveillance. Dodgiest of their fellow guests is a boozy pair of old swingers, Samuel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his supposedly French wife Lena (Catherine Curtin). Do they want to seduce Connie and Paul – or eliminate them? It’s entertaining enough and you never know where the story is headed, but it doesn’t quite hold together.

• 18½ is released on 11 July on digital platforms.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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