Is this comedic approach the right one? It’s hard to say. The fact is the real Watergate masterminds were a bunch of clueless creeps. But portraying them as silly clowns feels like it lets them off the hook; that it forgives a lifetime of dirty tricks — or “ratf***king” as they called it — in the name of humor. Sure, they were goofballs — but they were insidious goofballs. As such, “White House Plumbers” starts to feel less like “All the President’s Men,” and more like the underrated Watergate comedy “Dick.” And while there’s nothing wrong with that — “Dick” is a good movie! — it never quite gels with what’s unfolding.
The series is told primarily through the eyes of E. Howard Hunt, played by Woody Harrelson, who does most of his acting here with his jutting lower jaw. Hunt is a former CIA man who may or may not have been involved with the Kennedy assassination (the miniseries treats this as a running punchline), and who has fallen on hard times — the agency thinks of him as a joke, and he spends his days penning spy novels. Then, a big break comes: after Daniel Ellsberg leaks the Pentagon Papers detailing the failures of the Vietnam War, the Nixon White House wants revenge. And so they recruit Hunt to dig up dirt on Ellsberg.
Hunt won’t be working alone, though. He’s teamed up with batty former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux, sporting a killer mustache). Hunt is a dyed-in-the-wool right winger; a man who loathes “leftist propaganda” and sees re-electing Nixon as a victory for democracy. But as committed to the cause as Hunt is, he can’t hold a candle to Liddy, a zealot who states he’s willing to die for Nixon if need be, and he’s not just saying that — he means it.