’18 1/2′, a low-budget political comedy about the Nixon White House tapes
June 2nd saw the expanded theatrical release for 18½, the low-budget political comedy that insists on using the ½ character- which will probably make it a lot harder to find in the long run. Anyway! 18½ refers to the infamous eighteen and a half minutes that Richard Nixon and his cronies apparently deleted White House tapes ahead of the Watergate investigation. The technical explanation for how this happened was goofy, and people have long regarded it with skepticism. But at the same time, given how bad the content of all the other Nixon tapes was, how could these eighteen and a half minutes possibly be that much worse?
18½ theorizes a wacky conspiracy theory that’s actually a lot less wacky in execution than I was expecting, particularly given the movie’s unsubtle political undertones. It’s clear from the very first scene we’re not actually looking at a seventies-era period piece. The hair and the nails of our heroine, Connie, played by Willa Fitzgerald, are all wrong for the era. But for anyone who’s not a student of fashion history, such nitpicks are fairly minor as 18½ is a mostly convincing facsimile of the Nixon years as long as you don’t squint too closely.
What matters to 18½ isn’t the exact vibe of the era as it is the greater satire. The story goes as follows–Connie, in her work as a transcriber in Washington D.C.,–comes across in her generally mundane daily work a tape that Nixon and friends accidentally created of themselves destroying the infamous 18½ minute tape. Apparently, they didn’t realize that the conference room they had barged into to use its tape recorder also had an automatic tape recorder that’s set off by motion.
And that’s why the fashion sense of 18½ is so forgivable. The movie gets how technology, especially new technology, has a nasty habit of working too poorly or too well, the ghost in the machine never knowing or caring about what its human masters want it to actually do. Time constraints force Connie into adopting an elaborate facade as half of a married couple to clumsily try solve what amounts to a technical support issue with huge political repercussions–basically the only tangible obstacle she’s even sure exists for most of the runtime.
This naturally segues into deliberately uncomfortable and weird social humor in 18½. But not excessively so. Sure, there’s some hippies at the island where Connie’s stuck, going over conspiracies by ITT via Wonder Bread to achieve world domination. Yet they are, if anything, underspoken, eager to persuade, yet not seeming to expect the wisdom of their words to actually hit.
A lot of the general worldbuilding of 18½ reminded me of Inside Job, of all things, which is also about conspiracy theories but in an overly referential, smug, and zany way. The difference being, that pretty much all of the real-life people referenced in 18½, from Richard Nixon to Howard Hughes, and beyond, were all involved in some incredibly shady stuff, as the closing subtitles reminds us. The cultural context of our current moment actually helps a lot in underscoring the outrageousness of it all.
The media has told us for far too long at this point that Donald Trump ruined politics, which used to be respectable rather than farcical. Then we finally get to listen to the tape, and a whole lot of it is just Bruce Campbell as Richard Nixon patiently enduring an explanations to just how badly his underlings have screwed everything up. It’s not long before Bruce Campbell’s spot-on impression of Nixon is furiously deriding his lackeys as red-haired clowns while regularly emphasizing that there’s a lot of this stuff that he doesn’t know. Or can’t know. Does he know? Who knows.
18½ benefits a lot from its own slapdash construction. It makes for an apt metaphor for the farcical comedy that was politics in the Nixon years, far from the dignity with which we generally treat the era in retrospect. The movie itself climaxes with part of the final tape overlapping an incredibly sloppy and amateurish single-shot action scene. When John Magaro, as our leading man, notes, with some shock, that Nixon and his men are all buffoons, it’s just a statement of fact. There’s no sense of smug superiority, in part because his own character has been easily bamboozled throughout the movie by obstacles which shouldn’t be that much of a threat to a big-time reporter.
Fitzgerald and Magaro show strong chemistry as this pair of people who don’t really even seem to like each other that much, who just feel a powerful rush of victory when they finally discover Nixon’s horrible secret, that he has no idea what he’s doing. 18½ is life, and politics, as dysfunction, with a cynicism that’s timeless as it is genuinely funny.