A biography of Martha Mitchell by journalist Winzola McLendon describes a floral arrangement sent to her 1976 funeral by an unidentified fan. Against a spray of foliage on an easel, white chrysanthemums spelled out a simple message: “Martha was right.”
In the early 1970s, Mitchell was discredited by the Nixon administration as mentally unstable. She is mostly forgotten by today’s young adults. If she is remembered at all, it’s as a colorful but minor figure in the Watergate scandal.
That legacy could be about to change, especially now that people are in the habit of getting their history lessons from docudramas like Netflix’s “The Crown,” HBO’s “Chernobyl” and Hulu’s “Dopesick.” Starting Sunday night, Mitchell’s story will be retold in “Gaslit,” an eight-episode limited series based on the Slate podcast “Slow Burn.”
“Gaslit” describes Mitchell in his press notes as “the first person to publicly connect the Nixon administration to Watergate.” But in real life, she was no progressive whistleblower. Nicknamed “the mouth of the South,” she was a complicated figure who was a staunch conservative and a popular star of the Nixon years until things began to go horribly wrong.
In the docudrama, Mitchell— who’s played with remarkable nuance by Julia Roberts – is introduced to viewers as the charming, surprisingly candid wife of former attorney general John Mitchell, who is heading the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (nicknamed CREEP by outsiders).
When she asked about her antiwar views during an interview for a Ladies’ Home Journal profile, she sums up her philosophy on being a political spouse: “I decided long ago that I will say how I feel. And if that doesn’t conform to the president’s message, so be it. If that gets me banned from Air Force One, I’ll fly commercial. “
But in the seven episodes of “Gaslit” available for review, the prospect of flying coach is the least of Mitchell’s problems. After the bungled 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, leaves members of Nixon’s team scrambling to cover up their dirty deeds, Mitchell becomes a potential liability for the White House. The effort to keep her quiet results in her being drugged and virtually kept prisoner for days.
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Later, as the media continues to report what Martha says, the Nixonites chalk up her behavior to the sort of hysteria that used to be the go-to slur for any outspoken woman. It’s the old narrative of emotional outbursts, hormonal mood swings, menopausal paranoia – a whole grab-bag of reasons why female sources weren’t reliable. Roberts is superb as she reveals the toll the smear campaign took on Mitchell and her marriage, which is rooted in real passion but threatened by her husband’s wavering loyalty.
For children of the Watergate era, “Gaslit” is hugely entertaining for its behind-the-scenes depictions of Nixon’s henchmen, who attempt to maintain a somber, intimidating image as their world crumbles. We see macho man G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), who famously held his hand over a flame in a show of bravado, melting down over a jammed printer. We watch handsome attorney John Dean (Dan Stevens) behave like a preening yuppie as he zips around town in a Porsche convertible and frets privately over whether Nixon even knows who he is.
Creative license is taken here, but the overall picture of all these ambitious guys striving to one-up one another feels awfully authentic for any professional arena. The piece of resistance is the jaw-dropping transformation of Sean Penn into John Mitchell. The actor is nearly unrecognizable here in prosthetic jowls that make his character look like a Jabba the Hutt of corruption. Although John Mitchell truly cares for his wife, he is willing to undermine her confidence and belittle her comments, if that will help muzzle her tendency to speak her mind.
In one scene, “Gaslit” even coyly plays on a past adaptation of the story like the 1976 film version of “All the President’s Men.” It shows Bob Woodward, shown only from the back, slipping into a court hearing for the burglars. In a tan corduroy blazer with his slightly shaggy blond hair, Woodward looks exactly like Robert Redford, who played the Washington Post reporter all those years ago. It’s a nice inside joke and a poignant one, too, particularly because that classic movie captured the good guys winning, but just barely.
From the vast distance of 50 years, the events of Watergate seem a tame precursor to the assaults on democracy that America faces today. But “Gaslit” reveals at least one deeply troubling thing that hasn’t changed: the toxic masculinity that puts success above everything else and keeps the focus of those who succumb to it on who’s in and who’s out with a) the president, b) the boss, c) Dad, or d) insert your own domineering male authority figure.
The truth-tellers in “Gaslit” are the women, whether it’s Martha Mitchell, who knows long before her husband does that everyone around Nixon is destined to become his scapegoat, or Maureen Kane (Betty Gilpin), the liberal girlfriend (and eventually wife ) of John Dean who helps him realize there is more that matters than what his White House colleagues think of him.
The men of “Gaslit” are preoccupied with shifting blame and sticking others with assignments that will backfire on them in the end. Ultimately, there is no honor among these white-collar thieves. There is just ambition, backstabbing and a mean streak of bullying. It’s “Lord of the Flies” with black suits and stiff cocktails before dinner.
Roberts said on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” that Martha Mitchell would be popular today. And it’s tempting to take that further and think that today’s Marthas are all heard, respected and protected from unfair attacks, especially after the strides made by decades of feminist activism and the recent #MeToo movement.
And yet, well, look around. Eminently qualified, overachieving women are still diminished, still painted as too loud or emotional, still expected to smile and sit calmly as their achievements are debated by men who’d never admit to being sexist, even as they fight so hard to preserve an unfair system.
During one scene, as Mitchell is shooed into her room and given a stack of women’s magazines to read, a man assigned to keep an eye on her says, “Good girl.” Martha Mitchell wasn’t good, not in the way the patriarchy demanded in 1972 and beyond. But in finding the courage not to shut up, she achieved a moment of greatness.
Her future biographer McLendon (played here by Allison Tolman) tells her, “If you keep quite, other people will do the talking for you.” Mitchell used her voice, and it could make grown men quake. As McLendon’s biography quotes, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid once said of the Nixon administration: “Men who could blow whole countries off the face of the earth at their own discretion were powerless if Martha Mitchell reached for the phone.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
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