This summer marks 50 years since the infamous “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel that eventually took down President Richard M. Nixon. It doesn’t appear the media is quite ready to let it go. Not when projects such as Starz’s new limited series Gaslit continues the trend of drawing parallels between Nixon’s embattled administration and Trump’s embattled administration. I’m not here to pass judgment on whether these parallels are valid, but you cannot watch this new series without being reminded of our current political environment. I assume, anniversary aside, it’s why the project was made at all.
Based on the Slate Plus podcast Slow Burn by Leon Neyfakh, Gaslit stars Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, the “Mouth of the South,” who was something of a minor celebrity in the late 1960s/early 1970s during the Nixon administration. Penn co-stars as her husband John Mitchell, former Attorney General under Nixon. The allure of this particular take on the Watergate scandal is indeed the exploration of Mitchell’s part in helping unveil the truth. Mitchell’s place in history, for a very long time, held one of ridicule and derision, and Gaslit looks to change that by revealing the mental anguish and physical torture Mitchell underwent at the hands of her ice-cold husband.
If Gaslit plays something like a B-side of the Watergate scandal, then that’s because it is. Nixon is a side-note here, always discussed but seldom seen at close range. We don’t truly repeat the narrative already explored in truly great films like All the President’s Men or Nixon. Instead, we’re treated to an analysis of a trio of key Watergate players including Roberts’s Mitchell, Dan Stevens’s John Dean, and Shea Whigham’s G. Gordon Liddy. Of course, these characters have been portrayed multiple times in projects spanning both film and television, but we’ve never truly understood them as we do here.
For my money, Dan Stevens is the true male lead of the project, giving an enormously engaging, vaguely charming performance as the nerdy Dean whose hint of power gives him a bit of a Republican strut. Some of the limited series’s best scenes involve Stevens courting his eventual wife Mo (the great Betty Gilpin). His presence here is key: it’s important to understand how average people given a position of power could stray so far from the right path. Stevens humanizes Dean in a way we haven’t seen. It’s the best work Stevens has ever done, and he’s matched note for note by the astoundingly great Gilpin, whose fierce natural intelligence burns through every scene.
You’re probably not ready for Whigham’s G. Gordon Liddy.
I knew very little about Liddy — only that my father had his book “Wit” on the shelf for years, a fact that alarms me after seeing Gaslit. Whigham’s performance as Liddy varies between cartoonish buffoon and Max Cady-level terrifying. Whigham is always nearly the best in everything he does, but this performance is truly something else, particularly the finale in which Liddy’s stint in solitary begins to deteriorate his mental capacities. It’s a performance so gonzo that you’ll either love it or despise it. There’s no in between. I’m in awe of it, to be frank.
And then there are Roberts and Penn as the central figures in this B-side play. Sean Penn is fine, buried under pounds of latex and makeup and looking eerily like the real deal. Yet, his performance is fairly one-note. This version of Mitchell is drawn as a fairly standard evil white male in power. Only a few times does Penn have the material to do something truly interesting with the character. Although he’s considered the male lead of the series, he doesn’t hold our attention enough to warrant the opportunity.
At first, I really couldn’t figure out why Julia Roberts wanted to play Martha Mitchell. Through the first six episodes, she wanders in and out of the series giving a performance that’s something of a boozy mix between Shelby from Steel Magnolias and Sleeping with the Enemy‘s Laura. She coasts, a bit, on her natural charm and native Southern flair, always more than competent but never extraordinary.
That is until the seventh and final episode where the Mitchell marriage begins to fall apart. Roberts is given the opportunity to let loose that inner rage so brilliantly honed in August: Osage County. The final episode finally gives her a challenge, and she more than rises to it. She’s at once outraged, defiant, and devastatingly broken. Gaslit finally gives her the material I think we all expected in this finale.
Ultimately, Gaslit is an entertaining and fairly thoughtful concoction that shines a deserved light on people we haven’t really explored before. It’s well directed, well written, and well acted enough to recommend. Would people LOVE it? I doubt it. It’s a workmanlike project that simmers without really ever going to a full boil.
But it’s nice to give some of these big personalities their day in modern media. Gaslit helps us understand the battered and damaged people they truly are without burying them in Watergate controversies as they have so many times before.
Gaslit is now available on Starz.