18½ : Fun With Watergate

There are movies that draw you in, and there are movies that draw you in so much you forget the world around you. 18½ is so riveting and immersive that I forgot I was making a cup of tea and found a cup of cold, over-steeped leaf water after the final credits rolled.

The iconic opening shot is of Connie Lashley (Willa Fitzgerald) in her car, listening to an announcer on the radio talk about how theories are continuing around the missing 18½ minutes on the Watergate tape. The world around Connie pans in an impossible direction behind her and Luis Guerra’s music swells in the background, enveloping us in the world of a 1970’s political thriller.

18½‘s intricate plot is set up in the opening scene between Connie and Paul Marrow (John Magaro, an established reporter she’s asked to meet her. The paranoiac web of taped conference rooms maintained by the Nixon Administration has created a copy of the missing 18½ minutes that hard-working Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transcriptionist Connie has in her possession. Connie’s tape not only includes Nixon (Bruce Campbell) telling his Chief of Staff General Al Haig (Ted Raimi) that the tape of his June 20th 1972 discussion about the Watergate break-in with his prior chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (Jon Cryer) needed to be destroyed, but it also contains the 18½ minute discussion itself. Connie tells Paul that no one knows the tape that she has with her exists and that she needs to return the tape by Monday morning. In other words, Connie has the missing 18 and a half minutes that everyone is talking about on a tape that’s in her purse.

Connie and Paul negotiate, outlining a plan that will allow Connie to feel safe and maintain ownership of the tape while also allowing Paul to establish its veracity by listening to it, which requires a reel-to-reel tape player. They decide to check-in to the nearby Silver Sands Motel, a beachfront motel on the Chesapeake. As Connie and Paul introduce themselves as married couple Archie and Ruth to fellow cyclops and innkeeper Jack (Richard Kind), each lie they tell raises the stakes and notches up the tension.

It is in this surreal other-world of the Silver Sands that we spend a majority of the film in, and the location served as one of the inspirations for the creation of the film itself. The well preserved, mid-century classic motel is located in NY, but the rich location filled with highly saturated pastel colors easily fills in for the Chesapeake beaches where I spent large portions of my youth.

Paul (John Magaro) and Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) at the Silver Sands in 18½. Image used with permission. Photo Credit: Ellie Schneider, copyright Waterbug Eater Films.

The world of Silver Sands Motel is peopled with strange characters that shift between zany and threatening — the bread-obsessed hippies might be a sex cult, the overly-friendly odd couple insisting on having dinner might be trying to start one, and the cyclops Jack seems to see (and say) both too much and not enough. Is the person fishing on the water looking for something other than fish? The music adds to this atmosphere, morphing a psychedelic 70’s track into hushed, suggestive tones.

18½ never takes the viewer’s intelligence for granted. The well-written script ensures that context is given to the history and the moments for those that missed the headlines the first time around. Each detail serves a purpose (even the type of car Connie and Paul drive comes up in conversation). By the time that Connie and Paul are having dinner with eccentrics Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtin) I was alternating between laughing to release a bit of tension and laughing at the weird charm and humor of the scene because with all of its smarts, 18½ is also quite funny. From the situational humor that its vibrant and strange characters create to the jokes meant to break moments of tension, 18½ has a natural, sly humor that brings levity and a bit of release. The story allows for a variety of delightful performances from all of its actors.

Director Dan Mirvish teamed up with writer Daniel Moya to create the script. The film began shooting in early spring of 2020, and were forced to pause after a mere 11 days of filming for the pandemic. The ingenuity that Dan and his team used to get 18½ completed was a story in itself (and included a lot of sourdough). Filmmaker Magazine as well as Variety both ran stories regarding the challenges of getting 18½ filmed during the pandemic.

18½ has the spirit of a light-hearted heist, the plot of a political thriller, and the characters of a romantic comedy, which makes it charming in every way. 18½ is a fun movie about Watergate, which is an unexpected sentence to write. While Watergate might seem ‘stale’ or ‘boring’ by today’s political story standards, 18½ features a well-written, original story firmly rooted in its place and time — and it’s very effective at pulling the viewer into its world. It’s a fast-moving, fun romp through a turbulent political time that also invites us to ponder the deeper implications and possible parallels to our own time.

18½ premiered at Woodstock Film Festival on October 2nd to a sold out audience, and will be having a Midwestern Premiere at the Tallgrass Film Festival October. The International Premiere for 18½ is at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival (aka Mostra). The best way to keep up with what is going on with the movie and how to see it is at Dan Mirvish’s website for the movie, https://danmirvish.com/18-1-2.

I, for one, will be watching for news on a soundtrack release.

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