If you loved Veep, White House Plumbers should be next on your list

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White House Plumbers is not, as it sounds, a comedy about the people plugging the pipes at the White House. Though the title is only a whisker off. The biggest clue that this is about something bigger comes in the opening frame: “The following is based on a true story,” it says. “No names have been changed to protect the innocent because nearly everyone was found guilty.”

Veep showrunner David Mandel has turned Egil Krogh and Matthew Krogh’s 2007 book Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House into a political satire dunked deeply in a caper movie.

Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy, Judy Greer as his wife Frances, Lena Headey as Dorothy Hunt and Woody Harrelson as E. Howard Hunt in White House Plumbers.Credit: HBO

It’s jaunty, mischievous and at times hilarious. It’s also a big chunky piece of American political history: a snapshot of how Richard Nixon’s political machine set out to silence dissent but ultimately dismantled an American presidency.

Egil “Bud” Krogh’s book is the story of his experiences in the White House, specifically as head of the SIU, a Special Investigations Unit which earned the nickname “The Plumbers”. Their purpose was just as the name suggested: to repair the Nixon White House’s leaking pipes.

Ultimately, the book is less a blow-by-blow account of life behind the closed doors of one of America’s most infamous presidencies, and more a treatise on the ethical challenges of leadership. What Krogh was prepared to do to protect Nixon’s presidency likely surprised everyone. It certainly surprised Krogh himself.

The television adaptation zeroes in on two of the department’s most colourful figures, E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). The series also stars Domhnall Gleeson as White House counsel John Dean, Lena Headey as Hunt’s wife Dorothy, Gary Cole as FBI czar Mark Felt and F. Murray Abraham as Judge John Sirica.

Written by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, and directed by Mandel, White House Plumbers sets itself apart by immediately tearing up the political drama playbook. This feels like a caper movie, a sort of almost-very-serious romp that dances in that space between laughing at the absurdity of what you’re seeing, and quietly realising it’s almost completely faithful to the historical account.

This is not a political satire in the very overt way that Veep was. Which is not a criticism; Veep is almost without peer in American popular culture, a so-brilliant-it-hurts comedy that begs for a comeback with every new ludicrous headline in the American political spin cycle. But White House Plumbers is something a little different. Equal parts startling, serious and razor sharp.

Justin Theroux is effortlessly good. He was brilliant in HBO’s John Adams, and more recently in the Apple TV+ remake of The Mosquito Coast. But if you want to understand his shrewdly dry sense of humour, dig a little deeper in his resume: he was a co-writer of the sublimely ridiculous Tropic Thunder. In White House Plumbers, it feels like he’s in his element.

But the real discovery is Woody Harrelson who is stupendously good. Not that it should be a surprise. He cut his comic chops on Cheers and spent a year hitting perfect marks in Will & Grace. He also turned in a peerless dramatic performance in True Detective. And The People vs. Larry Flynt. And Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Perhaps it’s because people can’t get Woody from Cheers out of their mind. Perhaps it’s because his style of acting isn’t overtly theatrical. He walks and talks with a clever economy of choices. But Harrelson is easily one of the finest actors of his generation. His work on White House Plumbers will certainly contribute enormously to that.

White House Plumbers is on Binge and Foxtel from May 2.

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