“Gaslit”–“The Martha Mitchell Effect”

This STARZ series, released immediately before the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, reveals the familiar but also the untold stories of Richard Nixon and his circle of subordinates and eventual whistleblowers.  Gaslit takes us back to the divided America of the early 1970s (pending the “end” of the Vietnam War) with comparisons to the post-Trump havoc of 2022. 

First and foremost, however, Gaslit and the Netflix documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect peel back the skin on the story of two marriages: how loyalty to a president over a spouse makes for a messy and brutal dissolution of a once-passionate love (in the case of the Mitchells) and how a remarkable marriage makes for the foundation to be a whistleblower (in the case of John and Mo Dean)

Gaslit centers on Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), a glamorous and vivacious Arkansan socialite, wife to Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, John N. Mitchell (the unrecognizable Sean Penn). Martha soon becomes the ridiculed “Mouth of the South” when she publicly calls out Richard Nixon’s conspiracy to gain an election victory through burglarizing the Democratic National headquarters in Watergate.  Martha at first thinks this will save her husband from being thrown under the bus by Nixon. Her husband, however, remains a staunch and unmovable loyalist to Nixon.

Both Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Sean Penn as John N. Mitchell give brilliant, career-defining performances. Julia Roberts, stripped of glamourous makeup while embodying a  media darling, is noteworthy in her turn as a character actress.  Sean Penn, as John Mitchell,  chews up every psychologically and physically brutal scene with a formidable and defiant Julia Roberts, who  seemingly without effort transcends her own magnetism to play Martha.  

Of the five plumbers and their mastermind, Gordon Liddy (the astonishing Shea Whigham) easily steals the show.  His portrayal of a psychopathic personality–in his demonic plotting schemes and later in prison–are terrifying.  Yet even Liddy is interpreted as a person with some warmth and humanity, — directed only towards his wife and five children, — and not as evil incarnate.

If  Gaslit  is as true viscerally in both tone and emotional impact as experienced by this viewer, then politics–as evidenced by Watergate– is almost incapable of attracting honest people.  Only the complicit and duplicit will survive without the increasingly rare and courageous whistleblower.  Imagine a series like this on Trump’s failed coup.  Would the series be called fake news with a third of Americans refusing to believe it?

Availability:  Starz streaming

Note: John Mitchell served 19 months in prison. The Mitchells separated in 1973, and they never saw each other again. Martha died of a rare form of cancer in 1976, when they were technically still married.

Note:  The Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, was the first to report the clandestine skullduggery of the “plumbers” break-in.  In Wills’ obituary in The New York Times, Rep. James Mann (D-South Carolina), who cast his vote to impeach Nixon on the House Judiciary Committee, said:

“If there is no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time there may be no watchman in the night.”

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