Watergate meets “Veep” in “White House Plumbers,” an at-times-surreal HBO limited series that occasionally feels a little too over the top, mostly because the real-life characters actually were. At its best, it’s a lightweight companion to “All the President’s Men,” presenting the flip side of all that planning and frantic covering up by what amounted to Keystone Criminals.
Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux portray E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the two minor players in the bigger scheme of things that masterminded the plot. The pair sought to ingratiate themselves to the Nixon administration with a bag of “dirty tricks” to help ensure his reelection, leading to Watergate and breaking into the office of Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s psychologist.
If Hunt, a father of three, was leading a life of quiet desperation when this opportunity reared its head, Liddy represented the sort of gung-ho true believer convinced the end – which is to say, “Saving the country from Communism” – justifies any means, and that the ultimate goal is “proximity to power.”
High-ranking White House officials, meanwhile, including John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) and Attorney General John Mitchell (John Carroll Lynch), were understandably skeptical at first, but eventually gave the greenlight to some of the clandestine operations. Yet as Hunt and Liddy descended deeper into the abyss, they kept hitting absurd snags, while prompting Hunt’s wife (“Game of Thrones’” Lena Headey) to distrust Liddy, who plays recordings of Hitler speeches and keeps offering to do that thing where he holds his hand over a burning flame.
“The sooner you’re done with this guy the better,” she tells Hunt, who shares those sentiments about half the time, while going along with Liddy the rest.
Directed by “Veep” producer David Mandel from a script by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, “White House Plumbers” approaches the material in a satirical manner, and makes some clever and shrewd choices, including a particularly amusing nod to “All the President’s Men.”
Even allowing for the dramatic liberties taken with the facts, the whole exercise sort of rises and falls on Theroux’s cartoonish portrayal of the flamboyant Liddy, which could easily be seen as an absurd exaggeration except for the fact that he really was a beyond-eccentric character, parlaying his association with Watergate into a radio show and acting appearances (it’s noted textually that he guest starred on “Miami Vice”) after his release from prison.
At five parts, “White House Plumbers” meanders a bit in the buildup to the break-in, luxuriating in the trappings of the period and Hunt’s fractious family life while depicting its principals doing unbelievably stupid things, like bragging to a stewardess about their covert activities. The story gains momentum in its aftermath and the coverup that followed, testing the value of the loyalty to Richard Nixon (seen only in news clips) that Liddy preaches with messianic zeal.
Much of the narrative brings to mind the quote attributed to Deep Throat (a.k.a. Mark Felt, played here, briefly, by “Veep’s” Gary Cole) in “All the President’s Men,” in which he tells Bob Woodward, “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
“White House Plumbers” occasionally feels like it has gotten out of hand too, attributable in part to the stranger-than-fiction aspects of the story. On that level the project works primarily as a companion to a rich trove of Watergate-related cinematic fare, but like Hunt and Liddy, when held up next to that roster it relatively looks like a minor-league player.
“White House Plumbers” premieres May 1 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.