By Stephen Aspeling26 May 2023
Review: Gaslit, Julia Roberts’s new TV series
Richard Nixon… Vietnam… Watergate… this major US scandal continues to fascinate Hollywood and America decades after the administration’s attempted cover up and Nixon’s eventual resignation. The snapshot of American history was immortalised in film through All the President’s Men, now preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
While Watergate echoes in pop culture through its #Gate suffix, most people don’t actually know much more than the names associated with the debacle. Perhaps Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings and media circus term as US president triggered the nation’s collective memory of Dick Nixon.
Gaslit is created by Robbie Pickering (Mr Robot) and directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic), based on the podcast Slowburn. Picking up on the popularised concept of gaslighting, the apt title speaks to the tactics used to muddy Martha Mitchell’s credibility, which have resulted in what’s come to be known as the Martha Mitchell Effect.
Watch the trailer for Gaslit
The eight-episode miniseries picks up the story in early 1972 and addresses the Watergate scandal from the perspective of Martha Mitchell, the wife of the Attorney General, John Mitchell. Known as “The Mouth from the South”, Martha’s husband tries to contain and manage her reputation for speaking openly to the press when sensitive information around the scandal makes the would-be whistleblower a liability to the Nixon administration.
Surprisingly, the first co-starring production for Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, Gaslit plays host to a stellar supporting cast, including Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin and Shea Whigham. While Roberts and Penn are undoubtedly the headline acts for the political drama miniseries, throwing their considerable Hollywood weight behind this political drama, the responsibility is shared across the board with Stevens, Gilpin and Whigham chiming in with equally excellent performances.
At the time of filming, Julia Roberts was a year younger than her character, Martha Mitchell, at the time of the Watergate break-in. While Mitchell may be better known on her home turf, Gaslit offers a comprehensive overview of her involvement, from her high-ranking husband’s attempts to quell her big personality and outspoken media speculation, to her discrediting as a whistleblower. Roberts captures the larger-than-life character’s precarious standing through a full-range performance that underpins her headline pluck as well as private anxiety.
While many considered Mitchell a nuisance in her lifetime, she’s now celebrated for her contribution and sacrifice; however, the series doesn’t ignore other people who played a role in the scandal but have since faded from public memory.
Roberts is Gaslit’s kingpin, but she’s the jewel among gemstones. Playing opposite Roberts as her slithery husband is Sean Penn as Attorney General John Mitchell, whose Hitchcock silhouette took almost four hours a day to prepare. A complete transformation, Penn is unrecognisable, having eleven prosthetics and a bodysuit to achieve the transformation. Compared with Tom Hanks in Elvis, this prosthetic transformation is seamless, cutting edge and world-class even, giving Penn a similar platform to Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Dan Stevens may seem virtually naked in comparison to Sean Penn’s prosthetic “disguise” but delivers a terrific performance as John Dean, a fencesitter and White House counsel whose soul rests in the balance. A handsome actor, who just seems like a good guy, this aspect becomes integral to the role as wily charms and likability get in the way of his dubious ladder-climbing under the Nixon administration. Riffing opposite the spirited Betty Gilpin as the platinum blonde stewardess turned budding romance novelist, Mo, the two share delightful, slow-boiling on-screen chemistry.
Gaslit’s amazing array of performances is the main reason to see this authentic and entertaining dramatisation of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal. While the bases are already loaded, it’s Shea Whigham’s performance as “burglar” G Gordon Liddy that hits the winning home run.
Whigham’s intensity comes across like equal parts Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Bruno Ganz in a blender. He opens Gaslit with an intense monologue to win over the hearts and minds of the Cuban members of his undercover special operation; this serves as a precursor to his brilliant and maddeningly insane performance, portrayed as a Nazi sympathiser.
While a miniseries, Gaslit aims for film finesse not just in its ensemble but across every department. Starting with a few shock elements, Gaslit plateaus but remains provocative in its writing, capturing some of the peripheral characters to the wiretapping scandal with a degree of nuance and powering this home by way of sharp performances.
A visual decadence, the beautiful cinematography is embroidered by the design and wardrobe from the age. This immersive production design takes you back to the 70s, offering a smouldering political intrigue against an autumn colour palette dominated by yellow, orange and brown.
This provocative and timely series is well-acted, visually intricate, and timely and offers a comprehensive multi-angle view of the infamous Watergate scandal. A powerful chronicle and character portrait of Martha Mitchell, it captures the zeitgeist of the era and underscores the importance of the role and protection of whistleblowers in a democratic society.
Stream Gaslit now on Showmax.
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