18 and a half minutes. A lot can happen in that time. Depending on where you live, you can get to the store, purchase accoutrements, get home, and make a meal. Or perhaps you can work in some exercise, jogging up the road and back on a work break. In 18 and a half minutes, you can tear down an entire government. 18 and a half minutes can contain multitudes, depending on your perspective, and for writer Daniel Moya (Scroll Back) and director Dan Mirvish (Bernard and Huey), 18 and a half minutes is an opportunity to consider a possible past within the framework of history. Their darkly comic thriller 18½ uses the historical reality of the missing 18 and a half minutes of tape from the Nixon Administration tapes and explores the possibility that someone found them. This is the question that prompts what follows in a tightly-structured 88 minutes that’s pumped full of 1970’s paranoia and dry wit.
It’s 1974 and the Nixon Administration is under investigation. A stenographer, Connie (Willa Fitzgerald), working at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, or the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), is going about her job when she stumbles upon a conversation between President Nixon (Bruce Campbell) and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Jon Cryer) discussing their situation, unaware that they’re being recorded. Aware of the seriousness of the material, she contacts Paul Marrow (John Magaro) at The New York Times to discuss the tape before she has to turn it in to her boss on Monday. What should be a simple meet slowly evolves into something sinister as one seemingly strange occurrence leads to another, making the pair wonder if despite their discretion, the truth is not so easily hid.
One might be forgiven in thinking that 18½ is a project akin to Knives Out (2019) or Clue (1985) in which it’s all really just an excuse to see a collective of talent have a ball, given the premise and the cast. The truth is that the majority of the film is a two-hander between Fitzgerald and Magaro, their performances making or breaking whether the audiences gives a good god damn about whether there’s a conspiracy going on in the country or around them, specifically. Fitzgerald’s been working for some time with roles in film and television, her most recent role as Roscoe Conklin on Prime Video’s Reacher providing an opportunity to show just how well she can pull off being a smartass asskicker. Here, Fitzgerald brings the same energy as Roscoe with her as Connie, standing her ground against a whole host of 1970’s misogyny through mostly a smart mind and quick wit. No matter the situation, Connie almost always seem in control of the situation, even if it’s just by means of how she reacts to any given situation. Connie is our way in to the film, which places a great deal of pressure on Fitzgerald, all of which the actor handles with ease. Not only do we believe in Connie, but any potential threat seems somehow grander, more complex, and more difficult to overcome when the character finds herself in any way frazzled or unsure. Much of this is in the design of the character — tough, intelligent, and, by virtue of birth or profession, imbued with a mind for details and retention. But that doesn’t work on paper unless you have an actor who we believe is all of these things, which Fitzgerald does. As her prominent scene partner, Magaro brings with him a certain air of mystery to Paul. It’s a feeling that was present in Magaro’s work in First Cow (2019) that is sure to appeal to fans of that film. He follows Fitzgerald’s lead, though he does so mostly begrudgingly. Gratefully, Magaro doesn’t play Paul as misogynistic so much as paranoid and hurried, as he wants to get through their meet and to the tape as fast as possible. The script finds much of its humor as Paul attempts to take the lead and Connie rightfully corrects him, taking the lead herself. Magaro could’ve played Paul as staunchly arrogant, the newspaperman who knows more than the stenographer, but, instead, presents someone who understands the value of a source quickly. This makes much of their back-and-forth feel like jockeying for control as they each work together seek to find a quiet place to listen to the tape unfettered.
It’s from this that the film also finds its comedy and fuels the tension: Paul’s portable tape player is broken. This is the start of the pair’s rising stress as it means exposing themselves to the various guests at the Silver Sand Motel they’ve booked a room for. They don’t want to be seen or noticed, in the off chance that someone did track Connie, so attracting attention isn’t anything they want. Add in a little coincidental timing of ferry trips and closed shops, suddenly this easy meet turns into the kind of story nightmares are made of. Sure, it’s funny to see them attempt to get a quick answer from the chatterbox motel manager Jack (Richard Kind), avoid the hippie leader Barry (Sullivan Jones) who’s giving sermons by the beach, and ditch the insistent amorous couple celebrating their anniversary (played by Catherine Curtin and Vondie Curtis-Hall) who invited them to dinner, but each engagement brings with it a simultaneous agitation as Connie and Paul’s concern of being found out starts to feel more and more real and less like a paranoid delusion. Add in Elle Schneider’s (Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror) cinematography evoking films like Marathon Man (1976) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and you’ve got yourself a nice palpable disquieting energy. Credit to Mirvish in using the camera not just to document Connie’s adventure, but in recognizing that it’s also a means of shifting perspective so that the audience gets the unconscious sense of discomfort. Sometimes this comes in the form of capturing Connie and Paul from a distance only to use a long lens zoom to get closer rather than using a standard cut or edit to their position, only to have Connie walk into the zoom so that the camera has to pull back. Or, in another scene, rather than shooting from inside their motel room, the camera is outside pointing in. We see only what isn’t blocked from view, relying entirely on what we hear. It’s moments like these where the comedy of the absurd slips away and we’re reminded of the stakes involved.
Historical fiction can really go in any direction it chooses, more often creating opportunities that seem more likely than real events. Given what we know now about the inner workings of the White House, the backdoor deals and selections which keep those in power in power, Mirvish and Moya’s story is no more outlandish to me than the idea that many of our Congresspeople not only stoked the fires of the January 6th Insurrection and the Big Lie, but continue to do so publicly without punishment. Perhaps that’s why 18 ½ begins to feel less and less humorous and more and more chilling the further in we go: the truth is rarely stranger than fiction. But what an opportunity this fiction presents.
In select L.A. theaters May 27th, 2022.
Expanding nationally June 3rd, 2022.
Available on VOD and digital July 5th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official 18 ½ website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.