August 2023

Conspirators

Transatlantic, White House Plumbers


Miles David Moore

 

The word "conspiracy" has a negative connotation, but one person's conspiracy is another person's band of heroes.  The Nazi high command and the Vichy government regarded the American Emergency Rescue Committee, the subject of Anna Winger and Daniel Hendler's Transatlantic, as vile conspirators helping degenerate intellectuals and Jews to escape justice; posterity has begged to differ.  Conversely, the men caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee's offices in 1972, the subjects of Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck's White House Plumbers, saw themselves as patriots of the purest sort, attempting to save America from Communist subversion.  They ended up despised even by the Nixon Administration officials they worked for.

Based on the novel The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, Transatlantic is a fictionalized seven-episode version of the efforts of Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith) in 1940 to obtain American visas for artists and intellectuals on the Nazis' enemies list.  At the beginning, Fry and his helpers in the Emergency Rescue Committee operate out of the Hotel Splendide in Marseille, with concierge Paul Kandjo (Ralph Amoussou) keeping a watchful eye out for Vichy police.  Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), an American heiress living in Marseille, helps Fry financially and in other ways.  Meanwhile, Jewish refugee Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander) and his sister Ursula (Morgane Ferru) arrive in Marseille, seeking safe passage like many thousands of others.

At this point, several crises converge.  Mary Jayne's father cuts off her funds; the police raid the Splendide; and Vichy authorities uncover the Committee's secret escape route across the Pyrenees into Spain.  Mary Jayne secretly makes a deal with the mysterious Margaux (Rafaela Nicolay), an agent with British intelligence; this solves the Committee's money problems, but also leaves it open to charges of conspiring with Vichy's enemies.  (The U.S. was still neutral at that time.) 

Seeking new refuge, Varian discovers Villa Air-Bel, the luxurious home of Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav).  Thomas is Varian's former lover, and they quickly resume their affair.  Ursula escapes to Lisbon, but Albert decides to stay in France and work for the Committee; eventually, he and Mary Jayne become lovers.  They and their allies carry out daring escapes for refugees, Resistance fighters and British POWs under the noses of Police Commissioner Frot (Gregory Montel) and American consul Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll), who believes that if Henry Ford can cooperate profitably with Hitler, so can he.

I came to Transatlantic knowing only of Varian Fry and the historical figures he saved, or tried to: Walter Benjamin (played here by Moritz Bleibtreu), Andre Breton (Louis-Do de Lenquessing), Max Ernst (Alexander Fehling), Hannah Arendt (Alexa Karolinski), Marcel Duchamp (Ralph Martin), Marc Chagall (Gera Sandler).  Of the other characters in Transatlantic, some, such as Albert Hirschman and Mary Jayne Gold, were real; some, such as Thomas Lovegrove and Paul Kandjo, are not.  Even those who were real didn't interact the way Winger and Handler have them do.  Combining real and fictional characters in a story is at least as old as Shakespeare, but it leaves questions as to how much credibility Transatlantic has.  Some commentators have denounced Transatlantic's inventions as slanderous against Fry, although Fry's own son has said his father was a closeted gay man.   "I fail to see how my father's homosexuality could muddy the moral clarity of his cause or besmirch his reputation," James D. Fry wrote in a letter to the New York Times.

However fanciful Transatlantic might be, it is entertaining.  It isn't quite on the exalted level of Casablanca, but it's in that tradition.  It is visually opulent, edge-of-your-seat suspenseful—especially the scenes set in a Vichy prison—and filled with sudden betrayals, plot twists, and romantic renunciations.  There are wonderful set pieces along the way, such as the Surrealist birthday party Max Ernst throws himself in Episode Three.   Above all, it is a fitting if not-quite-factual tribute to a courageous band of people who saved more than 2,000 refugees from the Nazis, and whose work led directly to the founding of the International Rescue Committee.

What the work of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy led to, alas, is apparent in the polarization of American politics.  Hunt and Liddy can't actually be blamed for it, of course, but the Watergate burglary and subsequent scandal were the first steps in a process so metastatic that, fifty years later, the American people cannot agree on who won the last presidential election.

The first of White House Plumbers' five episodesopens with a scene of Hunt (Woody Harrelson), Liddy (Justin Theroux), and their co-thieves in the Watergate, attempting to pick the lock of the Democratic National Committee's office door.  Finally, the designated lockpicker explains he has the right tools—in Miami.  Immediately there is a subtitle saying there were four attempts to break into the DNC offices, and this was the second.

Hunt, a disgraced CIA agent and sometime novelist, is working a PR job he hates.  He seethes with old resentments; hearing a news broadcast that blames the CIA for the failure of the Bay of Pigs, he shouts, "CIA my ass! It was that chickenshit Kennedy's fault!"

Hunt is more than ready when Nixon Administration official Egil Krogh (Rich Sommer) calls him in to lead an operation to discredit Daniel Ellsberg.  Krogh introduces Hunt to Liddy, a former FBI and Treasury agent, who is already famous for his hand-burning fetish.   At first the two hit it off.  When Krogh, Mark Felt (Gary Cole) and other administration officials show no enthusiasm for Hunt and Liddy's plot to steal files from Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Hunt says, "It's just you and me against the entire radical left!"

"Sisyphus had it easy," Liddy replies.

The Ellsberg operation is at best a qualified success, but it is enough for John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) to place Hunt and Liddy in charge of dirty tricks for the Committee to Re-Elect the President.  From there—as Gregory, Huyck, and history tell us—everything goes downhill.  Hunt and Liddy may be political allies, but it doesn't take long for them to start getting on each other's nerves.  Liddy sees Hunt's posse of Cuban "plumbers" as incompetent (and so, to be fair, do we); Hunt is put off by Liddy's eccentricities, such as playing Hitler's speeches during dinner.

"Have you ever considered," Hunt asks Liddy at one point, "that Adolf Hitler and the Hindenburg are not ideal templates for success?"

Hunt isn't the only one who has trouble with Liddy.  When Jeb Magruder (Ike Barinholtz) makes a joke about killing anti-Nixon columnist Jack Anderson, Liddy says, "Roger that," and runs out the door, gun in hand.  Magruder must physically stop Liddy, and gets his arm twisted out of its socket for his trouble. Attorney General John Mitchell (John Carroll Lynch) has trouble with both Hunt and Liddy, staring at them balefully as they make pitches for their increasingly madcap schemes.  At one point they gleefully recount how they hired a group of junkies to urinate on the floor of a hotel suite used by the Democrats; at the end, Mitchell informs them that he has booked that suite.

White House Plumbers manages to preserve its wry satirical tone until the end of Episode Four, when historically accurate tragedy intrudes on the fun.  The final episode can't quite bear the weight of the sorrow and recrimination that ensue.  But the dialogue remains sharp, and the performances are excellent throughout.  Harrelson is in full SOB mode, his lips jutting out as if he had a lemon surgically attached to his palate.  Theroux is the Liddy of legend, unflappable whether recounting his rat -eating escapades or punching out a prison guard.  Lena Headey is a welcome voice of reason as Hunt's wife Dorothy, herself an ex-CIA agent, while Zoe Levin, Liam James and Kiernan Shipka hold their own as the Hunts' fractious children.  Best of all is Kathleen Turner as Dita Beard, the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking ITT lobbyist whose ill-advised memo nearly sinks the Nixon Administration on bribery charges.

Watergate might in the end have been a victory for justice, but bad things arose from its smoking ashes.  If there had been no E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy, there might have been no Roger Ailes, no Newt Gingrich, no Tucker Carlson, no Donald Trump.  It is too soon to satirize them the way White House Plumbers satirizes Hunt and Liddy, but here's hoping that day is on the horizon.

Transatlantic is available on Netflix, White House Plumbers on Max.

 

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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Miles David Moore
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

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