Review: A Farce Lacking Humor, 18 1/2 is a Missed Opportunity for a Tense, Gripping Political Thriller
Sometimes a really great idea for a film can be hampered severely or even undone completely in its execution. The new indie feature 18 1/2 is hardly the first film to speculate about the notorious 18.5-minute gap in the Nixon tapes, but it may be the first that offers up a fictional idea of how the material might have been recovered. Willa Fitzgerald plays Connie, a White House transcriber circa 1974 who is given a tape that she was to transcribe of a meeting that took place outside the Oval Office. Normally such meeting tapes are an uneventful part of her job, but this particular tape features Gen. Al Haig (voiced by Ted Raimi), H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (Jon Cryer), and even then-President Nixon (Bruce Campbell) popping in after the official meeting to listen to the 18.5 minutes of tape to decide if it’s damaging or not. So what Connie hears is both them listening to the tape and them commenting on how criminal its contents are (spoiler alert: it’s very damaging).
The official account of the missing section of tape is that the White House receptionist accidentally destroyed or taped over it, but Connie’s reel-to-reel recording tells a different story, as well as adding comments about the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s knowledge of it. Upon realizing what she has, Connie secretly meets with Washington Post reporter Paul (John Magaro), who is paranoid beyond reason, but he’s so desperate for this to be real that he takes every precaution to make sure the two of them aren’t discovered. After an initial meeting in a restaurant in an off-season seaside town, the two go to a nearby motel to use his tape player to listen to the whole recording. But when he discovers his recorder is broken, they scramble to find another.
At almost every turn in the story, the pair run into suspicious (or possibly just odd) characters, including the motel owner (Richard Kind), a cult-ish group of revolutionaries also staying at the motel (Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders and Claire Saunders), and an older couple (Vondie Curtis Hall and Catharine Curtin) intent on recapturing their passion for each other. It just so happens they have a working tape player as well, but the price our heroes must pay is to have dinner with the older couple, which turns out to be a drunken, rambling exercise that takes up entirely too much of the movie.
Directed by Slamdance Film Festival co-founder Dan Mirvish (from a screenplay by Daniel Moya), 18 1/2 may sound like an intriguing thriller of the kind that was popular in the 1970s, in which everyone is a suspect and no one can be trusted. Instead, the filmmakers have adopted a more darkly comedic tone with hints of farce, and frankly it doesn’t work nearly as well. As a result, what begins as a promising, intriguing work turns into something that feels sloppy and uninspired, especially when we get around to hearing portions of the tape. I won’t reveal any of the film’s twists and turns, but I suppose it’s my own fault for not figuring out earlier that a movie featuring the vocal stylings of Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell might be going for laughs rather than serious political drama.
I’m certainly not above a solid political farce, especially about the Nixon administration. But the more comedic elements of 18 1/2 simply don’t work, and Fitzgerald and Magaro are so good in the early parts of the film, when it feels more like a conventional thriller, that it’s disappointing to watch the plot turn ridiculous and overplayed in its second half. Even when all of the secrets begin coming undone, that somehow doesn’t improve the quality of the work. It’s a closer call than I’m probably making it sound, but in the end, it isn’t the outrageous nature of the fiction that buries the movie, it’s the jokey tone that erases its better qualities.
The film is now available via VOD and digital.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.