18 ½

‘It’s a tape in a box in a bag in a purse,’ Connie (Willa Fitzgerald, TV's 'Reacher')  tells anxious NYT reporter Paul Marrow (John Magaro, "First Cow") at their clandestine meeting in a funky diner where everyone is given the special no matter what they order.  Refusing to hand it over because she believes he will win a Pulitzer while she’ll get an indictment, the couple instead head to the Silver Springs Motel to listen together to what Connie, a transcriber, has found at the end of an innocuous government recording, President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “18 ½.”

Laura's Review: B

This charming little indie from director Dan Mirvish and writer Daniel Moya takes a ‘what if’ approach to history, imagining that Nixon’s inner circle unwittingly recorded themselves listening to the 18 ½ minutes of tape they would subsequently erase, then applies romantic and conspiratorial twists, ladling on increasingly quirky supporting players including Jon Cryer, Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell as the voices of H.R. Haldeman, Al Haig and Richard Nixon.

Connie’s explanation of just how the uppermost conspirators of the DNC HQ break-in ended up on tape a second time gives a historical spin to the current day meaning of ‘stupid Watergate.’  But she and Paul must run an obstacle course of obstruction before they (and we) can listen to that tape.  Posing as married couple, they must first bypass overly solicitous Silver Springs motel clerk Jack (Richard Kind, "A Serious Man").  Before they get to their cottage by the bay, another couple, Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall, "The Night House") and Lena (Catherine Curtin, "Werewolves Within") invite them for dinner (an invitation they will later accept when they discover their reel to reel player is broken in hopes of finding a new one).  At another cottage, revolutionary Vietnam War vet Barry (Sullivan Jones, "The Surrogate") and his female entourage gather around a bonfire spouting anti-government rhetoric.  And out on the bay, a mysterious fisherman (Alexander Woodbury) appears to be watching them with binoculars. 

The film is ingenious in how it plays obscure Watergate details for maximum effect (Howard Hughes, ITT and Wonder Bread – who knew!), weaving in other scandals of the time, like the Pentagon Papers.  Unfortunately it fails with a major lapse in logic regarding its climactic plot twist, something which could have easily been remedied, but by that time Mirvish has so delighted us with his hilariously obscured presentation of the tape itself, all is (almost) forgiven.

If the film gets the audience it deserves, it should be a springboard for star Willa Fitzgerald, whose patrician beauty, keen intelligence and sly tongue twisting will have many wondering why she hasn’t been cast in higher profile roles.  Kind is always a plus and Catherine Curtin has a field day as a French gourmand and randy lover of Bossa Nova.  Speaking of Bossa Nova, all the film’s music was composed by Luis Guerra, an eclectic mix perfectly suited to this film’s alternate period universe.

Although grounded in history, “18 ½” is something original, an intelligent conspiracy comedy aimed at adults.  Mirvish has so much fun layering in thoughtful laughs, he adds a coda to the main story that keeps the comedy going.  Stay with it through the end credits for continued snippets of tape we were never meant to hear.

Robin's Review: B

Anyone who lived during the turbulent 1970s knows about the infamous Watergate break-in of the DNC and Nixon’s secret recordings and eventually resignation. No one ever learned, though, what was on the suspiciously-erased portion of one tape known as “18½.”

This clever little “whodunit” entices the viewer with what could be a revelatory interpretation of what might have been on the erased gap on the infamous tape. And, if you are patient, you will learn about the smoking gun of information that took down Nixon. But, as I watched this mystery play out, I realized that it does not matter as the little twists and turns of intrigue unfold.

The 18½ minutes is a Magoffin used to dazzle the viewer while the story plays out. A White House stenographer, Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), has in her possession, the infamous tape with the eighteen and a half minutes of missing audio footage. She is so stunned by its contents, she contacts New York Times reporter, Paul (John Magaro), to leak the secret tape.

The plan is to meet at the out-of-the-way Silver Sands Motel, listen to the tape and expose the heinous actions of the Nixon Administration. The only problem is the tape machine Paul brings is busted. They approach the motel manager, one-eyed Jack (Richard Kind), and he introduces them to Lena (Catherine Curtin) and Samuel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a randy couple who happen to have a tape recorder.

What plays out is a tale of intrigue, deceit and betrayal that does not exactly end in a way you expect. This dark comedy breaks new and different ground with its unique “what if?” concept. The humor is ably populated with Connie and Paul the straight men for the story, giving Jack, Lena and Samuel room to provide the more broad comedy.

Why did it take almost 50 years for someone to come up with this idea? We will never know, but director Dan Mervish, co-scribing with Daniel Moya, takes the original idea and gives us a story that is both thought-provoking and fun in its cleverness.

Adventure Entertainment opens "18 ½" in select theaters on 5/27/22, expanding on 6/3/22.  Click here for play dates.