To this day, no one is certain what exactly was said during the 18 ½ minute gap in a tape of President Richard Nixon reportedly discussing the Watergate break-in with his then Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, or who erased it in the first place. Nixon’s secretary claimed to have pushed a wrong button and accidentally recorded over the conversation, but the truth of that statement has always been a source of debate. It’s that question that forms the basis of director Dan Mirvish’s “18 ½,” a twisty comic thriller that invites the viewer to consider a version events where the missing portion of that tape was located.
The story, set amidst the scandal in 1974, centers around Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), a government stenographer who stumbles upon the missing piece of the tape. She decides to bring it to a reporter, Paul (John Magaro), in the hope that he can leak it to the right people, and after meeting at a diner, Paul decides they should pose as a married couple and rendezvous at a shore-side motel—supposedly a quiet place in the off-season—to listen to the tape privately. Naturally, nothing goes as planned, especially after the pair realize that Paul’s reel-to-reel tape player is broken—sending them on a quest to find another one that brings them into contact with a quirky older couple and a group of revolutionary-minded hippies.
“18 ½,” with a screenplay by Daniel Moya from a story by Mirvish and Moya, manages to feel completely plausible and utterly ridiculous. Portions of the story are almost Hitchcockian, in the way it follows a normal, innocent person unwittingly getting swept up in a massive conspiracy, and also in the way humor plays a role without ever detracting from the suspense. From the start, a solid dynamic is established between Connie and Paul, with her appearing just a tad more level-headed and resourceful than he is. The tension between the pair as they butt heads over their predicament, thanks partially to the script and partially to the strong performances from Fitzgerald and Magaro, manifests itself in a sizzling bit of chemistry that becomes almost more fascinating to watch unfold that the conspiracy they are unraveling. The bulk of the humor is derived from their interactions with those around them as they struggle to make their mission work as some zany personalities get in their way. First, it’s Richard Kind’s delightful turn as Jack, the talky, one-eyed proprietor of the Silver Sands Motel where the pair stay at to listen to the tape. Then, there is a group of bread-obsessed hippies (played by Sullivan Jones, Claire Saunders, and Alanna Saunders) bent on revolution. And, most notably, there’s an older couple who frequent the motel, Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtain). It’s the encounter with this couple, who invite the younger pair over for dinner, that constitutes the bulk of the movie, and their increasingly bizarre gathering slows the film down and overstays its welcome just a bit. But as light as the film is up to this point, this sequence is an integral setup for a climax filled with the sort of twists and turns one would expect from a political thriller.
Mirvish and his crew also successfully take a historical event with a lot of moving parts and bring it down to a small scale, with the bulk of the action occurring in just one location with only a handful of different characters. This serves to make the conflict feel more immediate and compelling, and not unlike the paranoia-driven thrillers that dominated 70s American cinema, regardless of the amount of preexisting knowledge the viewer has of Watergate. “18 ½” reflects its mid-1970s setting in its production design and costumes as well as in the filmmaking itself, and Luis Guerra’s bossa nova-inspired score lends it all a light touch. One of the most delightful parts of “18 ½” is hearing an imagined version of the missing audio, with Bruce Campbell, Jon Cryer, and Ted Raimi providing strong vocal performances as Nixon, Haldeman, and General Al Haig. “18 ½” is a clever indie period piece that, the passage of almost 50 years since Watergate allowing for reflection and insight, has a lot of fun playing around with alternate histories, and for the audience, it’s equally as fun to play along.
“18 ½” opens in select theaters May 27, and will be available to watch on demand starting July 5. Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated PG-13.