In the opening moments of the newly released trailer for White House Plumbers — a new limited series from HBO dramatizing the Watergate scandal — a ringing telephone is shown waking a middle-aged man from a nap. Thanks to his balding pate, glasses that have slid down his nose, and the fact that he’s, well, napping, his appearance doesn’t exactly scream former CIA officer with experience in all sorts of ratf*ckery, to borrow the relevant Nixon-era lingo. But appearances, of course, can deceive.
In reality, the man is Howard Hunt (played here by Woody Harrelson). His extensive resume of government-sanctioned mischief includes all sorts of regime-change efforts in Latin America and working at one time as a Nixon Administration operative — and what we see in these opening moments is Hunt receiving a call from the White House. “Howard,” the voice on the other end of the line barks, “the president asked for a real son of a bitch to handle this Pentagon leak.”
Hunt growls in response: “…What do you need?”
Soon enough, the trailer adds a second shadowy, ominous-looking Washington figure (“the toughest guy I know” is how he’s introduced). Gordon Liddy, portrayed by Justin Theroux, has a thick black mustache and is apparently so hardcore that he likes to … hold his hand directly in the flame of a candle (“I do not bend, and I do not break”). There’s no trick to it, either. He gets third-degree burns every time.
Meet two of the most famous dirty tricksters in US political history, presented here as both menacing and kind of moronic.
From the network’s official synopsis of White House Plumbers, which comes from the producers of Succession and Veep:
“White House Plumbers takes the audience behind-the-scenes of the Watergate scandal as Nixon’s political saboteurs, E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), accidentally topple the presidency they were zealously trying to protect… and their families along with it. Chronicling actions on the ground, this satirical drama begins in 1971 when the White House hires Hunt and Liddy, former CIA and FBI, respectively, to investigate the Pentagon Papers leak. After failing upward, the unlikely pair lands on the Committee to Re-Elect the President, plotting several unbelievable covert ops — including bugging the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. Proving that history can sometimes be stranger than fiction, White House Plumbers sheds light on the lesser-known series of events that led to one of America’s greatest political crimes.”
As for the cast of this HBO series, it’s as stacked as it can possibly be: Lena Headey, Judy Greer, Domhnall Gleeson, Kiernan Shipka, and F. Murray Abraham are just some of the actors on board, along with Theroux and Harrelson.
If this early footage is any indication, there will be a Veep-like, irreverent-yet-edgy vibe to the series, which will make this an entertaining watch but also (perhaps) undercut the importance of this moment. It marked the beginning of the decades-long, slow unraveling of millions of Americans’ trust in so many civic institutions. At any rate, political junkies: Your next HBO obsession arrives on Monday, May 1.