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'18½' Review: Dan Mirvish's absurdist take on Watergate

'18½' - Dan Mirvish

Following an award-winning tour of international film festivals, unconventional comedy/drama 18½ will be released in the US on May 27th. Its director and co-writer, Dan Mirvish, a man with credits in most areas of filmmaking from cinematography to film editing, is known for his love of the eccentricity in film. A longtime defender of fringe independent film, he is co-founder of the annual Slamdance Film Festival, a showcase for nonconformist cinema, established after Mirvish found his own work routinely rejected by mainstream film festivals. Mirvish has come to be known for his offbeat work, and his latest production is no exception.

18½ is an unusual combination of comedy and suspense, drawn from American politics of the 1970s. The title refers to the notorious 18-and-a-half minute gap in an audio tape of disgraced US president Richard Nixon speaking with his chief of staff. The missing portion is understood to have been deliberately erased to avoid incriminating Nixon in the questionable activities which eventually forced his retirement, and the ‘missing 18 minutes’ became an archetype of political corruption. It is the infamous tape that provides the theme for a pitch-black comedy and fantastical adventure with political overtones, set in 1974.

While 18½ does not delve too deeply into the corruption of the Nixon administration, the content is informed by details which became known to the public after the late president’s death, when his White House recordings were declassified. Some inspiration may also have come from Mirvish’s former career as a political speechwriter in the 1970s. More serious sources, such as the HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words (2014), provide hours of audio from the tapes Nixon obsessively recorded of both official and private conversations. Along with Watergate-related plotting, these tapes reveal subterfuge, undisguised bigotry, and plans for covert attacks on perceived political enemies and members of the press. 18½ manages to fit a general sense of Nixon’s administrative style quietly into the background and use it to forward the plot. 

The tale begins with a young woman, Connie Ashley (popular television actress Willa Fitzgerald), arriving at an arranged meeting with Paul (John Magaro), a journalist from the New York Times. Connie is a transcriber in the White House, typing hard copies of government meeting tapes. The film posits a situation in which Nixon’s deleted conversation was accidentally recorded, and Connie is attempting to turn the information over to the press without being identified. From their first, contentious meeting, the pair wander through a chaotic, often absurd plot consisting of equal parts suspense and farce as they strategise ways to keep Connie’s identity secret while dealing with major and minor setbacks, along with occasional hints of surveillance. In the process, they encounter a series of quirky, preposterous characters that provide a comical background for their thwarted whistleblowing efforts. Along with zany comedy, the characters serve to represent striking features of 1970s culture and politics, and sometimes provide indirect commentary on the political issues represented by Connie’s smuggled tape – some of which is clarified in amusing mid-credits material. The story eventually unwinds into a dark, violent caricature of a political thriller, much of it played out over an audio background of Mirvish’s fabricated but plausible Nixon staff meeting on tape. The intense final act moves on to a purposely and ironically anticlimactic conclusion.

The two lead actors have perfect chemistry, by turns irritable, frightened, competitive, or unexpectedly compatible as they attempt to make their scheme work. They are backed up by an impressive group of actors portraying odd, flamboyant minor characters, along with Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Fargo) as the voice of President Nixon. The film also boasts a wonderful original musical score by brilliant Los Angeles composer Luis Guerra. 18½ is a weirdly entertaining, distinctly Mirvish take on a well-known aspect of the American political record.