HBO’s White House Plumbers Wants You to Know Hunt & Liddy Did Other Stupid Stuff, Too

TV Reviews White House Plumbers
HBO’s White House Plumbers Wants You to Know Hunt & Liddy Did Other Stupid Stuff, Too

In the opening scene of HBO’s star-studded limited series White House Plumbers, audiences are treated to a group of men trying (and failing) to break into the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington D.C.’s Watergate Office Building; their aim being to help secure a 1972 win for Republican incumbent Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign.

A chyron appears to alert audiences that we are, however, not watching a reenactment of the infamously blundered June 1972 break-in documented in history books and elsewhere. That one is so well remembered as the event that helped bring down Nixon’s administration and forever tarnish his legacy that the media merely need tack –gate onto any of today’s clusterfucks as a short-hand of letting the public know that what happened there was not only bad, it was also very, very stupid.

In fact, the first moments of Plumbers tells us, there were four attempted break-ins. What is being shown here is a reenactment of attempt two.

The implication from this opening is obvious. It’s been over 50 years since the break-in, and series creators Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck, and director David Mandel now have a chance to lay out the details of the stupidity for a younger audience. But the series’ target audience isn’t them; it’s the ones who watched the events unfold in real time—or who at least learned about it through material like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book All the Presidents’ Men or its film adaptation. Maybe they laughed about it while watching movies like the Kirsten Dunst / Michelle Williams comedy gem Dick. Maybe they saw last year’s Starz limited series Gaslit and sought vengeance for tangential figures like Margaret Mitchell, who was kidnapped, held hostage, and maimed in the press when she tried to speak out. 

For those viewers, this opening scene is a wink. The folks behind White House Plumbers want you to know that they know that you think you know this story—and that you’re wrong. This group of government employees and others did many stupid things.

White House Plumbers on HBO

Officially, Plumbers comes with a disclaimer sent to the press that it’s a “dramatization of certain facts and events,” and that “some of the names have been changed and some of the events and characters have been fictionalized, modified, or composited for dramatic purposes.” But that scene promises that it’s going to tell you the stories other reenactments didn’t tell. (The miniseries also comes with some extra street cred; it’s based on Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House, which convicted Plumber Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr. wrote with his son Matthew. Mad Men’s Rich Sommer plays Bud in the miniseries, and the writers throw him a bone in the fifth episode, having Liddy call him a “decent fellow.”)

The problem is that there’s another way to look at this opening scene in the miniseries: It’s one of cartoonish buffoonery that we have seen before because it is theoretically impossible to tell even the most straight-edged story about any part of this break-in without leaving it open for mockery.

And the cast embraces it. 


The acting in this series, starting from those playing the two geniuses overseeing this fiasco—Woody Harrelson’s mouth-breathing and guttural CIA-trained E. Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux’s self-mutilating and maniacally smiling FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy—is frequently ham-handed and distracting. The characters, personifying the age-old FBI vs. CIA grudge match, spend the miniseries in bell curves of hatred and devotion toward each other. (Is this a black ops or a black bag job? And does it really matter?)

This is easy for them to do because, to dispute the subhead of the memoir that inspired Plumbers, neither Hunt nor Liddy were “good people.”

Liddy has always been the easiest to mock. He had what would now be considered a Ted Lasso cosplay mustache, but what was then probably considered more insidious due to his obsession with Nazi propaganda. “Lineage is very important to Gordon. Even more so than intelligence,” his subservient wife Fran (national treasure Judy Greer) says in one of the miniseries’ many cheeky lines of dialogue. 

She also says it in the first episode of Plumbers, when the couple invite Hunt and his much more cunning wife Dorothy (Lena Headey) for dinner—an encounter that allows Gordon to line their five kids up on the staircase like obedient von Trapps and blast a recording of one of Hitler’s speeches. Theroux plays these scenes and his others like he’s South Park’s Cartman with military training, peacocking and self-aggrandising as he demands others respect his authority.

But if Liddy needs a win, Harrelson’s Hunt needs one even more. A washed-up agent still licking his wounds from the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Hunt likes to drop hints about his involvement in other matters of national security (JFK, Che Guevara) and say braggadocious things like “James Bond is a work of fiction. I am the real deal.” But he also attempts to stay relevant by living beyond his means and demanding respect at home even if that respect is not earned. The only person he has a chance of controlling is Liddy. And there’s a chance he might shoot someone if he misunderstands your sarcasm. 

You could almost pity him, this tired and aging man who desperately wants a legacy. But even Harrelson himself doesn’t seem to want that to happen. So many of Hunt’s lines—be it to Liddy or to his three children who aren’t the golden child that is his daughter played by Kiernan Shipka—are delivered with aspersion.

This is all a shame because Plumbers does tie in a lot of details that make this story even more insane. Some, like Liddy and Hunt’s visit to Los Angeles to bug the office of the psychiatrist treating Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellisberg, or how they aided International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. lobbyist Dita Beard (Kathleen Turner) after a memo she wrote suggesting a pay-out put a hiccup in securing a location for the ‘72 RNC, are good reminders that the break-in was not the only time the duo worked together. Others, like Dorothy Hunt’s death in a plane crash a few months after the break-ins and arrests, can send you down an internet rabbit hole for hours.

In fact, the most interesting people in this story are the ones not central to it. I don’t need another biopic (bio-series?) about government officers so scared of change that they bungle a mission for a guy even when it was clear he’d win his reelection. I do need a miniseries about women like Hunt, who was a CIA officer in her own right.

So maybe I did learn something from watching this.

White House Plumbers premieres at 9 p.m., May 1 on HBO.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.

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