It is 1974, and the airwaves are full of the ongoing investigation into the Watergate scandal. Two news items (voiced by 18½‘s director and co-writer Dan Mirvish) are heard going in and of tune on a car radio — the first about a mysterious $100,000 cash donation made by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to Richard Nixon, the second about the 18½ minutes missing from a taped conversation between Nixon and his then chief-of-staff H. R. Haldeman, recorded just days after the bungled burglary, in June 1972, of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C..
Driving the car is a woman named Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), looking nervous as she hides behind her big dark sun glasses. Her position in the vehicle, and the composition of the shot (filmed from the bonnet, with what looks like rear projection), immediately evokes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Where Marion was fleeing interstate with the cash that she had just embezzled from her workplace, Washington transcriber Connie has instead pilfered a reel of tape from the office which she suspects is a copy of the missing 18½ minutes, accidentally rerecorded as they were being erased from the original tape, and she is now headed to Chesapeake Bay for a clandestine meeting with New York Times political journalist Paul (John Magaro). Like Marion, Connie is already having second thoughts about the criminal road down which she is traveling – and also like Marion, Connie is about to end up in an off-road, off-season motel where there are strange characters and peculiar goings-on that may just prove fatal.
Pretending to be newly married couple Archie and Ruth, Connie and Paul check in at the Silver Sands Motel, hoping to find a room where they can listen to the tape together in private on Paul’s reel-to-reel player. The manager Jack (Richard Kind) is an over-talkative Norman Bates type (“I’m not for everyone”, he admits) with an eyepatch as possible cinematic code for a different kind of villainy. Also on the premises is a weird Manson-esque cult led by the hippie Vietnam vet Barry (Sullivan Jones), whose charismatic chaos recalls Drew Goddard’s similarly motel-set, Nixon-era caper Bad Times at the El Royale (2018). Then there is the nice, older mixed-race couple Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtin), who have come to rekindle the romance they enjoyed at the motel decades earlier, and who invite Archie and Ruth to join them for dinner, and perhaps, amid all the eating, drinking and being merry, for something more. Meanwhile Connie and Paul, having discovered that Paul’s reel-to-reel is broken, are desperate to borrow the one on which the well-travelled Samuel and Lena play their favourite bossa nova tracks.
Everybody, it seems, wants to swing with the ‘newlyweds’. Barry’s acolytes Daisy (Alanna Saunders) and Daffodil (Claire Saunders) are open about it (Connie refers to them as ‘the sex fiends’), while Samuel and Lena definitely appear to be building towards it – yet as would-be whistleblower Connie, wondering if she is really willing to play ‘Deep Throat‘ with Paul, starts to harbour genuine feelings for the journalist, politics comes to commingle with sex in the local sea air. Barry is leading a violent revolution against processed, plastic-wrapped ‘Wonder Bread’, one slice at a time, and while that may sound utterly unhinged, the cult leader is aware that the bread product is owned by the ITT Corporation which, as Barry tells his disciples, is “in bed with” Nixon, which “arms and aims the bombs we drop in SouthEast Asia” and which “is up to their eyeballs in the coups d’états of Brazil and Chile – every loaf of Wonder Bread supports the ITT-Nixon tyranny.” Jack rants about how ‘crazy’ Howard Hughes is, and has magazines on Watergate. Even the hedonistic, apolitical-seeming Lena shares Barry’s opposition to the “pre-sliced, polystyrene” bread that everyone is swallowing in America, and launches over dinner into a passionate diatribe (trippily fragmented by Mirvish’s editing) on how the corruption that is destroying America is systemic, and runs much deeper than Nixon. Meanwhile Connie, who had herself voted for Nixon in the past, now has her own personal reasons for wishing to help bring down his administration.
All these encounters start to make Connie’s maybe-incriminating tape seem a mere McGuffin to drive a portrait of eccentric small-town Americana. After all, we know from history that the recording would never surface, and in the film its playing is repeatedly deferred as Connie and Paul frantically search for a working reel-to-reel. Yet ultimately, that fateful conversation on the tape will be heard, and in a scenario where many characters are not who they seem, the masks will come off, and different interests will violently compete to ensure that the recording is buried, erased or otherwise forgotten. Yet Connie’s efforts to find the truth are also a struggle against patriarchy in its many oppressive forms, whether her boss Jeffries (Lloyd Kaufman!) who will never reward her hard work with a promotion, or the journalist who is happy to exploit her to his own ends, or the President whose policies destroyed her domestic happiness – and in the end, as at the beginning, she will drive alone, an autonomous young woman who remembers everything and is at the steering wheel of her own destiny. She is, as Barry sings, “a deadly butterfly”, emerging from her chrysalis transformed into a free agent for future change.
All of which is to say that Mirvish’s 18½ lets paranoid Seventies politics cross paths with other narratives and genres in an uneasy intersection of conflicting ideologies. Here the volatile unpredictability of events matches the sharpness of the dialogue (co-written with Daniel Moya). Meanwhile, if the title sounds just a little bit like Federico Fellini’s metacinematic 8½ (1963), then there is a certain reflexivity in the audio heard over the closing credits, as Nixon (voiced by the famously big-chinned Bruce Campbell) expresses his hope that heartthrob Robert Redford, with his “heroic face, small feet, but heroic jaw“, might one day play him in a movie. In fact Redford would instead play Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist who helped end Nixon’s Presidency, in Alaln J. Pakula’s feature All The President’s Men (1976). Like Nixon, however, 18½ itself rewrites history, in a manner that is all at once tense, funny and surprising, with the members of the cast all playing players and hiding their characters’ secrets with winning nuance. It is a funny farce with serious implications, and never quite goes where the viewer is expecting with its extrapolated riff on a story ‘ripped from the headlines’ – and from an era of political chicanery that has never really left us.
strap: Dan Mirvish’s conspiratorial Watergate farce has a Washington secretary turned whistleblower trying to hear a key missing reel of Nixon audio
© Anton Bitel