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Gaslit review: A sublime Julia Roberts can’t save new Watergate series

A plodding new series shows us the infamous Seventies US political scandal through the eyes of Martha Mitchell, wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney-general, but lacks any of the drama of the actual event

Amanda Whiting
New York
Sunday 24 April 2022 08:07 BST
Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in ‘Gaslit’
Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in ‘Gaslit’ (Courtesy of Starz)

Julia Roberts can elevate a scene with nothing but the staccato of her whisper or the anxious fondling of an earring. In Starz’s eight-episode limited series Gaslit, she plays Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell and one of the few characters not immediately recognisable from other Hollywood restagings of this dark moment in US political history.

Roberts’s Martha is an all-purpose gossip – nickname: “The Mouth of the South” – until her husband violently threatens her against telling the press what she knows of the administration’s criminal tactics. Roberts is wrenching as she slides from shrewd to shattered and back again. But while the series takes its du jour title from Martha’s predicament, Gaslit doesn’t confine itself to her story. And not even Roberts’s blistering portrayal of a woman terrorised into silence is enough to save a drama that is somehow both plodding and overreaching.

The confected series premiere is an hour-long parade of somewhat to incredibly famous faces, including a theatrically unhinged Shea Whigham as G Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who helped mastermind the burglary of the Democratic National Committee on behalf of Nixon’s re-election campaign. He’s joined by Dan Stevens as enterprising if naive White House lawyer John Dean, who will eventually be asked to lie for the president, and Sean Penn, struggling to distinguish himself from underneath the waxy prosthetic jowls of his John Mitchell mask.

It’s 1972 when Gaslit picks up, months before the break-in that would change the course of American politics. Back then, Martha was perceived as largely harmless, more concerned with nabbing the cover of Time than telling truth to power. But already her marriage to Mitchell, one of Nixon’s closest advisors, was poisoned by politics. I’d say the pilot featured some of the most eviscerating marital putdowns ever seen on TV if I hadn’t also seen six of the remaining episodes.

For a picture of marital bliss, Gaslit instead looks to John Dean and his leftie girlfriend Mo Kane (a plucky Betty Gilpin), characters whose scenes feel lifted from a different, lighter series. They play tennis together! They playfully smush food in each other’s faces! The Mitchells always made a fractious pair, but watching the buoyant John and Mo struggle to negotiate the Watergate fallout and John’s infamous role in it (Starz has asked journalists to avoid specifics to protect the show’s suspense) becomes one of the series’ more intriguing subplots. Even for a much happier couple, Gaslit seems to suggest, Washington is its own indomitable mistress.

But Gaslit, based on the popular 2017 podcast Slow Burn, isn’t content to play around on the sidelines of political history, even if that’s when it’s most compelling, such as what happens to Frank Wills (Patrick Walker), the Watergate security guard who first spotted the signs of a break-in. “How can people live together without a shared understanding of right and wrong?” asks a White House employee unprepared to participate in a Watergate cover-up. The question may have been on people’s minds in 1972, but in 2022, it doesn’t carry the same existential punch.

“Everyone’s so evil here,” Mo tells John on an early date at a party populated with the bold-faced names of the Nixon regime, including Martha, who at the height of her fame is hiding upstairs at her own soiree. John Mitchell is there, fuming at his wife for something she said in a magazine interview. And John Dean is too concerned with jockeying for White House position to enjoy that he’s on the exclusive guest list at all. Still, Mo adds: “I’m having so much fun.”

Alas, she’s the only one.

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