Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

18 ½
"Plays out with the same mixture of import and absurdity which marked the scandal as a whole."

On 8 August, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the US presidency in disgrace following exposure of the scandal which was gone down in history as Watergate. During the investigation of these events, hundreds of hours of tape recordings from the White House were transcribed, but a mystery became apparent: on the afternoon of 20 June, 1972, there was a gap. 18½ minutes was missing. With questions still unanswered about the cover-up and the break-in at the Watergate hotel (famously rendered on celluloid in All The President’s Men, this prompted a great deal of speculation, and despite claims made about it by various staffers, there has never been a satisfactory explanation.

Half a century later, Dan Mirvish’s sprightly comedy thriller returns to the subject with a fictional tale about a rogue White House transcriber who manages to get hold of the missing material and aims to share it with a journalist. Played with nervous zeal by Willa Fitzgerald, the transcriber, Connie, has imagined that this will be a simple handover, but needs to be sure that she can trust reporter Paul (John Magaro). For his part, he needs more information to confirm that this is the real thing. The situation is further complicated by the fact that both are aware they may be being followed, and that neither has a tape recorder.

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Far away from the offices where most of the real drama played out, most of the action takes place at a quiet coastal resort managed by Bruce Campbell’s oddball concierge. It’s there that the intrepid pair hide out and go on a desperate search for a means of playing the tape, whilst endeavouring to protect their secret. This plays out with the same mixture of import and absurdity which marked the scandal as a whole, ultimately giving way to farce. Through it all, a bond grows between the two, the sort of intense connection which can emerge as a response to catastrophe and which has the potential to be both destructive and distracting at a crucial time.

The two leads have natural chemistry and bring plenty of energy to the screen, yet manage to keep their characters feeling real and vulnerable throughout. The supporting ensemble get to go to more ridiculous extremes with a brand of comedy which won’t work for all viewers but will have some in stitches. As hippies try to draw our heroes into pseudo-spiritual rituals on the beach, Mirvish pointedly contrasts behaviours perceived as rebellious with the awkward ordinariness of those who might actually create a political earthquake. An older couple whose intrusive questioning gets ever more personal speak to a different aspect of Seventies culture, but Mirvish keeps us guessing as to the precise nature of their interest.

This was a period when familiar social rules were breaking down in all sorts of unlikely ways, and the film effectively captures that sense of uncertainty – a hunger for change, a longing for justice, competing with a deep desire to go back to a time when (it seemed) authorities could be trusted and life could be straightforward. The liminal environment of the resort, where every connection is temporary, provides the perfect backdrop, but the film’s real power lies in the fact that despite all the shenanigans on display, there is real human emotion underneath. Comedy and tragedy blur together at both federal and personal levels, making this an appealingly different but nonetheless potent entry into the Nixon-inspired cinematic canon.

Reviewed on: 11 Jul 2022
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18½ packshot
In 1974, a White House transcriber is thrust into the Watergate scandal when she obtains the only copy of the infamous 18½ minute gap in Nixon's tapes.

Director: Dan Mirvish

Writer: Daniel Moya, Dan Mirvish

Starring: Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Gina Kreiezmar, Marija Juliette Abney, Bruce Campbell

Year: 2021

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


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