Compromising Positions


This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in the wake of the revelation of the missing 18½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

To commemorate, here's 18 ½, a wily and original political satire.

Playing to the times (the mid-1970s in milieu and technology), 18 ½ centers on Connie, a female stenographer who happens to work for the same stenographic pool as Rosemary Woods and who happens to come upon a covert re-recording of the missing 18 1/2 minutes. (Ms. Woods, you'll remember, suffered the indignity of stretching for photographers to show how she made the erasure). Eureka! The restored tape exposes the plot! But how to present it to the public?

Connie enlists the aid of Paul, a New York Times reporter. They quiz and spar with each other at a secluded café, equal parts suspicion and flirtation. Connie has the goods, and Paul's salivating to get the story. But the tape's format is reel-to-reel. Where to get a player?

And so the farce begins.

The pair go to an off-season motel housing a crew of time-sensitive weirdos, from the front desk guy to the Free Loving Hippies to Swinging Sophisticates who dance a mean Bossa Nova. Sexual tension is everywhere. Connie and Paul pose as newlyweds, placing them in many absurd situations, all the while paranoid that any of these eccentrics could be government agents sent to snuff them.

18 ½ is directed by Dan Mirvish, who's kicked around for a while. He's worked with Jules Feiffer and been mentored by Robert Altman (on Omaha, the film). He brings a wizened eye to the proceedings, which get whackier by the second. Cross Three Days of the Condor and What's New, Pussycat? and you get the idea.

The leads are excellent, two actors on the front line of new talent. Willa Fitzgerald (TV's Reacher, The Fall of the House of Usher) plays Connie, and she makes efficiency sexy. John Magaro, so impressive in Past Lives, plays Paul, maybe a tad too nebbishy, driven by ambition and willing to go along with whatever fiction Connie cares to weave.

Character actors-wise, 18 ½ has a great cast of recognizable faces: Richard Kind as Jack, the motel manager, and Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtain as the passionate couple. But you must be vigilant to catch other names who appeared offscreen as the credits scroll by: Jon Cryer as the voice of H. R. Haldeman, Ted Raimi as Al Haig, and Bruce Campbell as President Richard M. Nixon. These guys don't sign on for just anything. In a particular stratum of celebrity, they are formidable presences.

Sadly, Mr. Mirvish's direction is tentative. Shots are fastidiously composed but distanced. The cinematography is wispy. The musical score comes from a can. (The distributor has released a video doc on YouTube about the rigors of filming during the Covid pandemic, but remember: Tom Cruise managed to film the extravaganza that is Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning during that time without obvious compromise.)

The script by Daniel Moya is incessantly clever. A parlor game query; "If you were running for office, what would you be hiding?" Asking the ex-special forces guy "What did you do in the war?" A pause, then simply, eyes narrowed: "We won."

As the zaniness piles up and we get to violence, the satire veers off track. A climatic fight scene is particularly clunky, though maybe meant to be stagy, actors dancing a dance, Going Through Motions. Unfortunately, it's blocked like something for community theater—so much chaos, so much intrigue, and a point being made about the quality of Truth.

It's no spoiler to disclose that we end up where we began, with Connie in a position that tells the wary viewer all we need to know about her. I'm unsure what exactly happens in 18 1/2 or what it means. But that's its charm. It's a frothy treat that catches you off guard, is never what it seems, and somehow gets the job done.

18 1/2. Directed by Dan Mirvish. From 101 Films International, Kyyba Films, and Bugeater Films. 2021. 88 minutes. On DVD.

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