‘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.