Producers: Dan Mirvish, Daniel Moya and Terry Keefe Director: Dan Mirvish Screenplay: Daniel Moya Cast: Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall, Catherine Curtin, Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders, Claire Saunders, Jon Cryer, Bruce Campbell, Richard Kind, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Jon Cryer, Lloyd Kaufman, Marija Abney, Gina Kreiezmar, Elle Schneider, Joshua A. Friedman and Alexander Woodbury Distributor: Adventure Entertainment
Maverick filmmaker Dan Mirvish—one of the founders of the Slamdance Festival as a quasi-populist alternative to the more prestigious Sundance, starts out with an intriguing premise, but the makers stumble attempting to craft a comic thriller based on it. In the end though it offers some oddball laughs, “18½” is simply not funny or ingenious enough to sustain even its modest running-time.
The title, of course, refers to the infamous gap in the tape of a conversation between Richard Nixon and his aide H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office on June 20, 1972, only three days after the botched break-in at the Watergate complex that would eventually bring down Nixon’s presidency. When his taping system was revealed and he was compelled to turn over the tapes to the Senate investigating committee, the gap became a matter of intense speculation, and explanations as to how it might have occurred accidentally were widely ridiculed.
The starting-point of Daniel Moya’s script, which he fashioned with Mirvish, is that the material in the gap could be recovered at one remove, as it were. Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), a government transcriber, in typing the content of a benign meeting that was automatically being taped in another building, discovers that Nixon and his chief of staff Alexander Haig had taken over the room after the meeting to listen to the June 20 tape, and that the voice-activated recording device captured not only the words of the original but their comments about it. Connie decides to turn the resultant “second generation” tape over to New York Times reporter Paul (John Magaro), whom she meets at an isolated restaurant.
Paul has brought along a reel-to-reel recorder to listen to the tape in a nearby motel run by goofy Jack (Richard Kind), but it’s broken, and so Connie and Paul, who have taken a room claiming to be husband and wife, look to borrow one from somebody else. First they approach Jack, without luck, and then turn to Barry (Sullivan Jones), a hippie guru who’s instructing his followers Daisy (Alanna Saunders) and Dafodil (Claire Saunders) about his theories connecting Watergate to a bribe Howard Hughes paid to Nixon and to ITT and its subsidiary Continental Baking, the producer of Wonder Bread. Barry can’t supply one, either.
Next the ersatz couple go to an older one, Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtin), who do have a recorder and had previously invited them to dinner. What follows is a long, strange evening in which Connie and Paul are offered more than just a meal. But eventually they get the tape machine back to their room and listen to the tape. By this time they’ve gotten involved with one another, too, but before they can get romantic, sinister secrets about those around them are revealed.
The best parts of “18½” are the opening act, in which Connie and Magaro first meet and then deal with garrulous Jack–in which Fitzgerald, with her clipped, precise approach, and the more laid-back Magaro play off one another nicely, while the inimitable Kind adds his shtick to the mix–and what we eventually hear of the purloined tape, on which Nixon (voiced by Bruce Campbell), Haldeman (Jon Cryer) and Haig (Ted Raimi) capture the seedy tone of that benighted administration with zeal. (You do have to strain to hear what’s being said, though, as the voices often overlap. The closed captions available on streaming help.)
Elsewhere, though, matters are not so happy, and the middle of the picture sags badly. The hippie business is forced, and Hall and Curtin can’t endow Samuel and Lena with much more than a creepy weirdness in a dinner sequence that is agonizingly extended. When twists and turns arrive at the end, they’re more random and confusing than crisp and satisfying. And technically the mini-budget shows in the gritty cinematography of Elle Schneider (who also takes a small role), Monica Debrowski’s scrappy production design, and the sometimes choppy editing by Mirvish himself (he also does a voiceover as a radio announcer). Luis Guerra’s score excels in the songs he wrote that play over the closing credits, which explain a lot, if not all, of what’s gone on.
The scandals of the Nixon administration, and the personality of Nixon himself, remain fascinating, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in next month will probably bring a spate of documentaries on the episode, and perhaps more fictionalized pieces like this one. But while “18½” has amusing moments, one hopes others might be more consistently successful.