Photo from 18 ½ by Elle Schneider, courtesy of DanMirvish.com.
The Watergate break-in was one of the biggest blunders in American history, so it stands to reason there’s a great comedy of errors hiding in there somewhere. In 18 ½, director, Slamdance cofounder, and WashU alumnus(!) Dan Mirvish found a phenomenal farce by crafting a historical fiction to explain the infamous eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the Nixon White House Tapes.
The official story of the gap is that Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, inadvertently erased that portion of the tape, which is likely nonsense as the task would have required Stretch Armstrong powers to achieve. 18 ½’s equally believable scenario centers around Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), a transcriptionist who one day finds her usual pile of Office of Management and Budget meetings includes a surreptitious recording of Al Haig, H.R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself listening to the tapes, and discussing their destruction. Connie takes this tape to Paul (John Magaro), a pasty, nervous New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop over those guys at the Washington Post. Connie and Paul understandably don’t trust each other; when Connie refuses to hand over the tape, the pair agree to go to a nearby motel and let Paul listen to the tape and take whatever notes he needs. Things quickly go pear-shaped once they arrive at the motel thanks to a wacky cast of characters, including the motel’s blabbermouth, eye-patched owner (Richard Kind), a wannabe revolutionary (Sullivan Jones) leading a seeming cult of foxy hippie chicks, and a prying couple (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Catherine Curtin) who won’t take many no’s for an answer. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
The alternate history (particularly hearing what the erased tapes could have, in theory, contained) is fun, but it’s the performances that really sell this movie. Fitzgerald and Magaro have a wonderful back and forth in playing two characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar—she, modern, attractive, independent, forceful in her opinions, but willing to go with the flow as their motel misadventure gets weird; he, sweaty, pasty, nervous, untrusting, exasperated at everyone and everything—but find themselves thrust together because each has something the other wants. Much of the humor comes from the interactions as well as their disparate responses to the ensuing craziness, which is aided and abetted by the supporting performances, zany characters played just to the right side of believable. None of these are better than Curtis-Hall’s role as Samuel, the adoring husband of the weirdly overbearing couple, which isn’t a huge one, but man, does he do a lot with it. From the instant he walks onto the screen, he just owns it, with a captivating, lived-in performance, really showing what can be done when an actor really throws themselves into a role.
18 ½ has a distinctively 1970s-ness to its look, with all the inherent weird color choices and tragic fashion trends. The film is at its most visually compelling when Mirvish is trying to guide our eye, from shots filmed as if from a hidden perspective (raising the question in the viewer’s mind if Connie and Paul are being watched and if so by whom) to short shots to draw attention to the things Paul is watching out of the corner of his leery eyes. There are a few times when scenes feel like they drag on just a smidge too long, mostly when it feels like Mirvish is letting his supporting actors go all-out, but it’s hard to ding him too much when the movie glides by in less than an hour-and-a-half overall.
The great performances, broad characters, and ingenious twisting of American history are all enough to highly recommend 18 ½. But the plot is so expertly constructed with little bits that are set up early and paid off later (particularly surrounding Connie and her impeccable echoic memory) that it seems like a second viewing would offer even greater payoff. The film is only showing once as part of SLIFF, but hopefully a further run in theaters or streaming is in the offing to make that possible. | Jason Green
18 ½ will screen at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd.) on Wednesday, November 10th at 8:00pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival with an appearance by director Dan Mervish. The film is not available for virtual screening. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.