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White House Plumbers on HBO review: Woody Harrelson show is giddy fun... until it isn’t

 (© HBO)
(© HBO)

If you want to know what rank incompetence looks like, then White House Plumbers is a pretty good place to start.

HBO’s latest show is all about the Watergate Scandal – the forerunner to everything from Partygate to Trump’s entire time in office. The illegal scheme began when, in 1972, a group of political operatives attempted to break into an office to steal the psychiatric files of an anti-Nixon agitator.

The aim was to discredit him. Instead, the burglars ended up doing the exact opposite through a truly cataclysmic series of blunders (the first of which was botching the robbery).

Over the course of five episodes, spy-slash-henchmen Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt bungle operation after operation, plunging the presidential campaign into chaos and scuppering President Nixon’s chances of ever getting back into the White House. The best part: it’s (just about) all true – and as the intro cheekily states, “no names have been changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty.”

It is, of course, television dynamite, and this snappy, bouncy HBO series more than does it justice.

Taking the helm are Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux as Hunt and Liddy: two washed-up agents who are fanatical defenders of the President.

They’re also very unorthodox. Hunt has a temper (and a very fragmented family life); the bonkers Liddy listens to recordings of Adolf Hitler’s speeches (in one brilliant scene, the Hunts come over for dinner and are treated to a full-blast rendition of the Führer in action) and carries a Walther PPK pistol around with him at all times. Because James Bond did, of course.

Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in White House Plumbers (© HBO)
Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in White House Plumbers (© HBO)

It is these people that end up leading the charge to scupper the Democrats’ chances at election. Under their command are the ‘Plumbers’, a group of Cuban exiles who are almost as incompetent – over the course of the show, they break and enter, plant bugs, steal things and conspire to rig the upcoming American election. All in a day’s work.

Is it funny? How could it not be? Harrelson and Theroux have pitch-perfect chemistry, playing the odd couple to perfection. They rapidly alternate between falling out, and hugging it out. Shouting is their preferred method of communication; they are beta males aspiring to be alphas. Plus, nearly all of Liddy and Hunt’s bonkers plans are mind-meltingly ridiculous. Who thought that hiring a boat, cocaine and strippers in order to catch influential Democrats in a compromising positions was a good idea? Turns out, these guys.

The action romps along apace, gathering steam as it goes, rather like a boulder rolling downhill. My only quibble was the overabundance of white, besuited men in the episodes – so many that it was hard to distinguish between them, honestly – but after a while, they all sort of blur into one another, which is probably for the best.

There are no heroes here, except perhaps for the pair’s long-suffering wives. Lena Headey in particular is beautifully understated as Dorothy Hunt, the person holding everything together with absolutely zero recognition from her chaotic husband. When her moment to shine comes, though, she obviously shows the men how it’s done.

However, director David Mandel never loses sight of the real-life political implications here. Yes, Hunt and Liddy are washed-up, funny and ridiculous – but their actions also had very real consequences for democracy and politics. Together, they created one of the biggest political scandals of all time and laid the groundwork for everything to come.

After all, Trump was seen as funny and ridiculous when he took office, but he took Watergate and ran with it - and ended up almost destroying the American constitution in the process. That’s no laughing matter. This, above all, is a cautionary tale about what happens when people have too much power.

All episodes of White House Plumbers will be available on Sky Atlantic and NOW from May 30