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Stylish, Kooky '18 1/2' Finds the Weird in Watergate

This unique take on the scandal is anything but the movie you're expecting.

Sullivan Jones plays a revolutionary leader addressing two hippy followers in 18 1/2
Sullivan Jones plays a bread-based revolutionary, flanked by acolytes.
Kerri McConnell/Waterbug Eater Films

It's a mystery that endures to this day: US President Richard Nixon recorded every word that was spoken in the Oval Office, but one conversation was lost to history. Days after the Watergate break-in, Nixon spent 18 and a half minutes with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussing... well, we can only speculate. When the tapes were turned over to investigators, that section was erased.

Filmmaker Dan Mirvish takes that as his cue to speculate like hell in 18 1/2, a stylish, off-kilter, Watergate comic thriller. It's a small-scale flight of fancy that blends truth, fiction and conspiracy, imagining  fictional characters on the fringes of the real-world scandal. Screenings start May 27 in Los Angeles, New York and Omaha, Nebraska. It'll open throughout North America starting June 3.

Read more:  Willa Fitzgerald: Making '18 1/2' Was an 'Alice in Wonderland' Experience

The movie starts in familiar political thriller territory, with a clandestine meeting between a typist with a secret and a journalist hoping to expose the president. It isn't far off the dramatized real-life events seen in films like All the President's Men or Oliver Stone's Nixon. But don't assume these are real-life figures. As we get to know our fictional leads, it becomes clear the events we know are a starting point for a far less conventional exploration of a fractured nation.

Willa Fitzgerald, star of Reacher, plays Connie, a diligent transcriptionist who finds herself in possession of the tape that could be the president's undoing. She reaches out to Paul Marrow (played by John Magaro, of Umbrella Academy and The Many Saints of Newark), a nervy Times journalist who's been chasing the Washington Post's scoops. Paul wants to hear what's on the tape and Connie won't give it up, so the two agree to check into the pleasingly bizarre Silver Sands motel for some privacy. And that's when things get weird.

The Silver Sands, where we spend most of the movie, is America through the looking glass. It's a strange heightened reality decorated in 1970s browns and yellows, scored by unsettling bossa nova and filled with the kind of oddballs you might expect to find at a seedy motel. Richard Kind plays a perceptive manager with plenty of questions for Connie and Jack, who are posing as newlyweds, but who's willing to turn a blind eye to the more radical happenings in his hotel. 

John Magaro and Willa Fitzgerald in 18 1/2

John Magaro and Willa Fitzgerald bring real tension to a far-out story.

Elle Schneider/Waterbug Eater Films

Fitzgerald and Magaro keep the story grounded, creating a partnership that's built on mutual dependence and mistrust. The tension between them is palpable and grounded in reality, giving the audience a relationship to believe in -- or suspect -- when everyone else is so far out.

Sullivan Jones plays a bread-based revolutionary, delivering some of the most ridiculous lines in the movie with deathly sincerity. Meanwhile, Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtin bring a mesmerizing unreality to their roles as a loved-up older couple who take an interest in the newlyweds. 

Even in this far-flung world, we hear the background noise of news bulletins, reminding us of the reason we're here: The Watergate break-in and its subsequent investigation. We also get to hear a fictional version of the infamous missing 18 and half minutes, with Bruce Campbell channeling an embattled Nixon as he harangues and rants at his aides and collaborators. It's like a window into a more typical Watergate movie.

Tricky Dick may not appear on screen but his paranoia pervades the world. The characters express a roiling discontent that's bigger than any one scandal. These frustrations are rooted in the period, but they're familiar in 2022: There's distrust in the media and anger in the face of corporate corruption, with speculation and conspiracy filling in the gaps when nothing makes sense. Vietnam and the World War II have left people with murky pasts and lingering anger. It's all drenched in a lurid sexuality, sometimes enticing and sometimes threatening to the seemingly square Connie and Jack as they maintain their cover as husband and wife. 

John Magaro and Willa Fitzgerald laugh awkwardly in 18 1/2

Got a secret to keep? Avoid the nosy strangers in a seedy motel.

Elle Schneider/Waterbug Eater Films

Mirvish is no stranger to blurring the lines of fact and fiction in politics. During the 2008 presidential election, he convinced a number of media outlets that his satirical creation, the fictional GOP pundit Martin Eisenstadt, was the anonymous source behind a leaked comment about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In 18 1/2 he once again takes advantage of a bewildering point in real history to create something unique. The movie leaps to some fanciful conclusions about Nixon's deep secrets, but it draws on truths that are just as outlandish.  

The movie unfolds at a languid pace, with our heroes moving from one offbeat encounter to the next. A neat plot contrivance pegged to the evolving technology of the 1970s sends them hunting for a reel-to-reel tape player in a world of television sets, eight-tracks and analog radios. Most of the tension comes from Connie's and Paul's uneasy balance of mutual dependency and suspicion rather than the danger of their mission. It might seem like an unusual choice for a thriller, but the spaced-out wooziness and the unhurried approach only adds to the retro sheen. So it's disappointing that, having taken its time and built up suspense, the movie blows it on an action-packed ending that's pure pulp schlock. One climactic moment of sexual violence left me with a particularly nasty feeling. Blink and you'll miss it, but I wish I'd missed it. 

An ending can make or break a more straightforward thriller, but 18 1/2 is far from straightforward. If you're looking for hard-bitten presidential intrigue, you won't find it here, but that's not the story the movie's trying to tell. And there's actually something tonally appropriate about that frustrating finish: You can ask the big questions, but even if you find some answers, there's no guarantee you'll be happy with them.