Review: White House Plumbers Delivers an Amusing Take on Watergate

This retelling of the Nixon scandal is more in the style of Leslie Nielsen than Robert Redford.


HBO's White House Plumbers is a fictionalized account of the events before, during, and after the notorious break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate complex during President Richard Nixon's reelection bid in 1972. The show adheres to the historical record in its way, but the twist is how it frames the entire affair as a madcap farce more like The Naked Gun than All the President's Men.

Nixon aides E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), known as "plumbers" since they were tasked with shutting off leaks (of information), each have extensive spycraft résumés yet caper around like buffoons. Tasked with undermining whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg's credibility, they plan to break into his psychiatrist's office. Liddy's preparation involves picking out a wig and practicing a limp to throw off any witnesses. The break-in is a disaster—they trash the office and don't find what they came for—but we do get multiple shots of Liddy stumbling around with a shoulder-length pageboy.

The Watergate break-in was one of many outlandish proposals—one involved chartering a yacht full of prostitutes as a honey trap for Democrats—each with gem-themed code names such as Topaz and Sapphire. Attorney General John Mitchell shoots down various plans as ridiculous and expensive but eventually greenlights the Watergate operation.

The plumbers gladly risk their lives, livelihoods, and reputations, committing felonies to sway an election for a popular president who would win in a historic landslide anyway. Their actions deserve their place in infamy, but the series shows how utterly harebrained the participants and their plans really were.