In this edition of Under the Radar, I have a miniseries that works, a movie that does not, and a documentary that cleans up the mess left by the movie.
The Watergate scandal, which brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, forever altered America’s opinion of politics and saddled us with thousands of cheap ‘Scandalgate’ headlines. But the greatest scandal in political history would never have happened had it not been for one eagle-eyed security guard and five bumbling burglars, two of whom would attain eternal notoriety.
White House Plumbers, an HBO production available on Crave, was released in May and barely made a ripple; everybody seemed so obsessed with The Last of Us that White House Plumbers got lost. That’s a shame, but the good news is you can still watch it.
White House Plumbers tells the story of two of the Nixon reelection campaign’s most notorious operatives, E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). Hunt, a former CIA operative, organized the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel on behalf of the Nixon campaign. His accomplice was Liddy, a former FBI agent and certified crazy man who once told White House staffers how to kill a man with a pencil and famously could hold his hand over an open candle flame.
The break-in, as you know, did not go well. How badly it went is accurately detailed in the tight, five-part series. For example, an accomplice assigned to be a spotter for the burglars didn’t notice when police entered the Watergate hotel because he was watching a movie called Attack of the Puppet People. That’s too ridiculous to be anything but true.
White House Plumbers is based on a book of the same name by Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh, who was in charge of the so-called ‘plumbers’ unit. Hunt and Liddy are portrayed as almost comical characters, which is in keeping with most ‘based on a true story’ films involving political characters. Aside from the speculative nature of the portrayals of Hunt and Liddy, White House Plumbers sticks quite rigorously to the facts. At just five episodes, it’s well worth your time if you’re into history, politics and wild and crazy characters.
While White House Plumbers is rigorous (in Hollywood terms, anyway) in hewing close to the facts, the new Apple TV+ film The Beanie Bubble doesn’t even try.
A rare misstep from Apple, The Beanie Bubble is a bust. The story of Beanie Babies, a soft plush toy that set off a world-wide, money-fueled mania in the 1990s, is one wild story. But co-writer and director Kristin Gore (daughter of former U.S. VP Al) chose to turn the story into a parable of female empowerment. According to the film, Ty Inc. founder Ty Warner (Zack Galifianakis) became filthy rich on Beanie Babies mostly thanks to two long-time girlfriends played by Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Snook (Shiv from Succession), and a young employee (Geraldine Viswanathan) who developed the company’s groundbreaking website. The problem is that while Warner did have two long-time girlfriends, and the young employee did contribute greatly to the company, the characters are all composites (no real names are used). The film is far more fiction than fact, as Gore is apparently trying to make some kind of profound statement about capitalism and women, or something. It’s a disappointing mess. (If you’re interested in how much truth there is in any ‘based on a true story’ movie you see, check out the excellent website History vs. Hollywood.)
For a much more honest Beanie Baby story, again go to the HBO library on Crave and check out Beanie Mania, a fascinating 2021 doc on the story of a cultural phenomenon. While Beanie Bubble attempts (and fails) to tell the Beanie Baby story from the mostly fictionalized inside, Beanie Mania looks at the big picture in straight up documentary form. While the film concentrates on Warner’s girlfriends, the documentary makes almost no mention of Warner’s private life (he apparently has done only one interview, ever). The HBO/Crave documentary does, however, feature an interview with the real employee who created the website. As the old saw goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and Beanie Mania proves the point.