18 ½ Review
With a premise and initial set-up that suggests a far more thrilling and suspenseful experience, 18 ½ is a surprisingly gentler glimpse into two people who get swept up in the potential to be more than what they are. Its centerpiece may be the titular 18-minute and 30-second recorded conversation between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, but Dan Mirvish’s latest film manages to place all of its political intrigue on the backburner and settle into a mood that overcomes its characters and the viewer. While it’s a bit rough around the edges and seems slightly meandering, 18 ½ manages to evoke shades of Robert Altman until its effective and chilling conclusion.
Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) is nearing the end of her shift transcribing tapes for the White House when suddenly she stumbles upon the only known recording of an 18 and a half minute conversation that was thought to be erased between Nixon and Haldeman. Fully aware of the significance and potential danger she may now be in as the tape puts her at the forefront of the Watergate scandal, Connie gets into contact with Paul (John Magaro), a reporter who wants to help reveal the information on the tape while keeping Connie safe.
There is a level of quirk in those initial conversations between Paul and Connie that are heightened by Paul’s decision that the tape must be listened to in a hotel discretely and complete with a cover story. A desperate desire for anonymity to protect each other, the two’s decision to rent out a hotel provides a host of new problems as friendly and prying neighbors force the two to dive deeper into their cover stories. Now pretending to be a husband and wife, 18 ½ turns from political thriller to character study where all the tension that should exist melts into the background as two people aiming to improve their lot in life find the stories they tell themselves to only expose their pasts.
Not every conversation is particularly engaging, especially as the film first tries to introduce an oddball cast with the Nixon tape still looming over the protagonist. There’s an inherent shagginess to the structure of 18 ½ and it doesn’t always work, especially when characters feel like they’re being forced into the plot. However, there’s more than meets the eye with almost every character and decision made throughout the film and it all works in favor of the film’s eventual turn.
18 ½ is most effective when it switches into overdrive and pummels the audience with tension and suspense. Twists and turns are given more potency thanks to the time spent with each character, giving the film a Cold War spy thriller vibe and letting its actors let loose. Speaking of, Mirvish does a fantastic job of not letting any character go to waste, with a screenplay from Daniel Moya that gives everyone significant enough time to make their roles memorable and actors that fall into those roles wonderfully.
It’s a somewhat idiosyncratic film for a bit and it’s easy to be off-put by that when the film opens with such a tantalizing real-life conspiracy. However, 18 ½ doesn’t wear out its welcome and despite a few pacing issues here and there, it knows when to start making significant moves towards its explosive final act. When it’s all said and done, 18 ½ leaves a lingering coldness that can’t immediately be shaken and successfully puts a pin on a dizzying journey.