‘Gaslit’: Julia Roberts skillfully settles into the ’70s as Martha Mitchell, a Watergate wife who wouldn’t be silent
She’s electric opposite Sean Penn, playing corrupt Nixon aide John Mitchell in the darkly funny Starz series.
“But if every evil is justified in pursuit of some sacred truth, then laws don’t matter anymore, right? People don’t even matter. How can a society function like that? How can people live together without a shared understanding of right and wrong?” — Early whistleblower in Watergate scandal in “Gaslit.”
The Cabinet of Hollywood Stars playing political figures from the last half-century on streaming series continues to grow, from Jeff Daniels as James Comey and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in “The Comey Rule” to Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp and Clive Owen as Bill Clinton in “Impeachment: American Crime Story” to Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in “The Loudest Voice” toViola Davis as Michelle Obama and Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in “The First Lady”—and now comes the Starz limited series “Gaslit,” with Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Sean Penn as John Mitchell. It must be a blast for so many A-list actors to don the makeup and the wardrobe, lean into the archives and create indelible fictionalizations of famous and infamous figures from recent American history.
We’re sure having fun watching them ham it up.
The first of eight episodes premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on Starz and is available then on the Starz app and the Starz streaming and on-demand platforms.
When it comes to star power, nobody outshines Oscar winners Roberts and Penn, but Roberts slips back into her Southern accent and loses herself in the fashions and hairstyles of the time while delivering a devastatingly effective performance as the booze-soaked, ferociously independent and tragic Martha Mitchell. Penn disappears under the prosthetics and exudes controlled rage as Martha’s husband John, who was Nixon’s campaign chairman and then attorney general—and then one of the many corrupt soldiers in the Nixon White House who fell on their swords (or were pushed onto their swords) in the Watergate scandal.
Both actors are delivering true character performances, and they’re absolutely electric together. And while the primary focus of this darkly funny, broadly melodramatic and well-paced series is on Martha and John, “Gaslit” is equally involving when the viewpoint shifts to the myriad of colorful and often comically corrupt characters who deepened the Swamp that has yet to be drained to this day.
With the cinematography and production design team effectively transporting us back to the early 1970s (with the occasional flashbacks to earlier time periods), “Gaslit” tells the story of Watergate as experienced by the acolytes, insiders, political donors, small-time crooks, power brokers and ruthlessly ambitious schemers who were directly or tangentially involved in the notorious break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., and the subsequent and wide-ranging cover-up that eventually felled a president. (Nixon is seen only in news footage in “Gaslit,” a smart move, as we’ve seen this story through his eyes a dozen times before).
We meet the likes of Shea Whigham’s G. Gordon Liddy, the gonzo madman who proposed “Operation Gemstone,” a series of insanely outrageous clandestine acts designed to ensure Nixon’s re-election. Holding his hand over an open flame until his flesh burns, the mustachioed and hyper-intense Liddy intones: “For history isn’t written by the feeble masses, pissants, commies, the queers and the women. It is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings. …This is what it means to be American. This is what it means to be Nixon.”
In the immortal words of Sgt. Hulka in “Stripes,” Lighten up, Francis.
Whereas the initially loving but increasingly volatile relationship between John and Martha Mitchell plays out like a political version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” with Martha frequently causing scenes in public and on television while John rages about becoming Nixon’s fall guy and lashes out at Martha in horrific fashion, we spend nearly as much time following the courtship and marriage of the sycophantic young attorney John Dean (Dan Stevens) and his wife Mo (Betty Gilpin)—and those scenes are like something out of a screwball satire. Stevens strikes the perfect notes as the craven Dean, who doesn’t realize he’s being played for the fool until he’s facing a prison sentence, while Gilpin perfectly captures the icy and practical (and loyal) Mo, who keeps telling her husband to get his stuff together and stand up for himself.
An all-star gallery of terrific character actors turn in universally fine work, from Hamish Linklater as Jeb Magruder to Patton Oswalt as Charles Colson to Nat Faxon as H.R. Haldeman to J.C. MacKenzie as Howard Hunt to Chris Conner as John Ehrlichman. The names of those true-life characters might be unfamiliar to those who weren’t around in the 1970s or haven’t studied Watergate, but suffice to say they all had their moments in the spotlight back in the day—in most cases as they were on their way to prison.
Mostly, though, this is Martha Mitchell’s story, and Roberts delivers a magnificent performance as a unique American original who refused to be silenced even after she was held captive, abused, vilified and turned into something of a national joke. As Martha herself put it, she never stopped talking, and “Gaslit” is a valuable reminder that in the matter of Watergate, she was on the right side of history.