This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal, which rocked the American political establishment, overthrew a president, and became such a buzzword for corruption and crime in high places that almost every scandal since has the suffix ‘gate’.
Adding to the mountain of material on Watergate – books, films, documentaries, memoirs – is the series Gaslit, created by Robbie Pickering and based on Leon Neyfakh’s podcast Slow Burn. Directed by Matt Ross, the show has a cast led by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn.
The series is being streamed on Lionsgate Play.
The most famous movie about that period remains Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976), about journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, who uncovered details of the scandal. The complicated conspiracy involved illegal surveillance of the political rivals of President Richard Nixon, who was seeking re-election.
An alert security guard stumbled upon a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington. The investigation of a relatively minor incident led to the uncovering of shocking abuses of power by men in the Nixon administration.
Gaslit tells the stories of these men, as ambitious as they are unscrupulous. It begins with the scene of Right-winger G Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) declaring, “History isn’t written by the feeble masses, the pissants, the commies, the queers and the women. It is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings.”
Liddy unflinchingly burns his palm over a candle to prove his machismo. He would be comical if he weren’t so dangerous.
The series lines up all the President’s loyal aides, who were probably more sycophantic than there was any call to be – White House attorney John Dean (Dan Stevens), Chief of Staff HR Haldeman (Nat Faxon), election aide Jeb Magruder (Hamish Linklater), political adviser Charles Colson (Patton Oswalt) – but shines a light on the forgotten woman who was the first whistle blower, Martha Mitchell (a terrific Julia Roberts).
Martha was the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn buried under tons of prosthetics and quite unrecognisable). A publicity hound, she was dubbed “Mouth From The South” for her garrulousness. She courted the media, much to the exasperation of her husband, had no filter (to use current jargon) and said whatever she pleased, even words bordering on the risque. She presented herself as a social rival to First Lady Pat Nixon, one of the reasons why she was banned from Air Force One, and bragged about it.
Men, like the political climber John Dean, call Martha “an idiot and a lush” but his liberal, flight attendant girlfriend and later wife, Maureen Kane (Betty Gilpin), admires Martha for her outspokenness at a time when women were kept out of reach of power and were expected to doll up and stand by their husbands.
Political correctness was unheard of; sexism and extramarital dalliances were overlooked. Dean is sleeping with a call girl, who seems to know all the movers and shakers of Washington DC.
Liddy, brought in by Dean, comes up with the idea of spying on Democrat opponents and activists. John Mitchell – who takes over as head of Nixon’s re-election committee – gives the idea the go-ahead. When their machinations are exposed, they take extreme measures to prevent Martha from talking to the press, which is how the series gets its title.
Julia Roberts gets to play the whole gamut from vivacious, feisty and glamorous to a pale shadow of herself. Roberts out-Streeps Meryl, who was reportedly approached to play the part in another project. The younger men have been cast for their uniformly sleek and wolfish looks, the kind who stalk the corridors of power in America and anywhere else in the world, leaving layers of slime in their wake.
There are other series and films coming up on Watergate, including White House Plumbers, The Last Witness: Watergate and The Martha Mitchell Effect. By today’s standards, what Nixon’s cohorts did would be considered a minor misdemeanor. But back then, they had to pay for their misdeeds, and the media covered itself in glory.
The 1970s, with its big hair, bright outfits and anti-war movements, was an exciting decade, which Gaslit recreates. The show also tells a grim story with a lot of panache, a dash of humour and some cautionary finger-wagging.
While Nixon underwent impeachment and was forced to resign, who would have imagined the excesses of the Donald Trump era and the return of Right-wing lunacy? The eight-episode Gaslit does seem a bit overstuffed, but is always engaging and comes at the right time to remind viewers that 50 years ago, when so many people lost their spine, others also grew one.