Stunning period recreations and performances, as a marriage implodes in the middle of the Watergate scandal.
There’s a lot going on in Gaslit, but one thing is for sure… it’s never dull.
The backdrop is the Watergate scandal in Washington 1972, which led to President Nixon’s downfall. That’s a story that’s been amply dramatised in All the President’s Men, Watergate, Nixon, Frost / Nixon, Dick and more.
Gaslit adds the perspective of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) a loud Arkansan socialite and wife to Nixon’s loyal Attorney General, John Mitchell (Sean Penn).
When Attorney General Mitchell tasks White House Counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens) to set up an espionage unit to spy on the Democractic National Committee, so begins an unstoppable train of calamity.
Dean hires macho, cloak-and-dagger lawyer G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) to take charge of the intelligence operation, bugging offices at the Watergate Hotel.
“This is where we get to play God,” Liddy declares.
Suffice to say not everything goes as planned, especially on the night hotel night watchman Frank Wills (Patrick Walker) starts his rounds.
For Dean, trying to impress new girlfriend Maureen (Betty Gilpin), his star rising in the Washington ranks is about to come crashing down. On the tail of the plot are FBI agents (Chris Messina, Carlos Valdes).
But it is the Mitchells we are here for. Martha just loves the high life of Washington parties and press interviews, frequently spilling the tea to journalist Winnie McLendon (Allison Tolman), creating headaches for her pipe-smoking, Attorney General husband. There are furious arguments, and even domestic violence, as a result.
It will be Martha who first warns of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, thus justifying her central role in this miniseries. Yet this drama by writer Robbie Pickering and director Matt Ross affords enormous texture and spotlight to its brilliant ensemble.
Julia Roberts is magnificent in the central role of the polarising Martha, while Sean Penn is positively unrecognisable as her husband thanks to elaborate make-up (I found it less distracting than Russell Crowe’s turn as Roger Ailes in Loudest Mouth in the Room, for instance).
Dynamic Dan Stevens enjoys such variety in his screen roles since departing Downton Abbey, and Shea Whigham is bound to be nominated for his demented performance as the unhinged G. Gordon Liddy. Minor players are also anything but in the hands of this team.
The production team has a ball recreating ’70s fashions, hair styles, locations and cars -from sunken lounge rooms to fondue parties.
Yet while this is a scintillating study of the Watergate scandal, it’s also a masterful, sometimes terrifying, essay on how a marriage copes with power, betrayal, truth….
“People just don’t like you. That’s why we can’t fly Air Force One,” John Mitchell tells his wife.
Gaslit is one of the better drama offerings so far this year. Don’t miss it.
Gaslit is now screening on Stan.