Julia Roberts Shines In Superbly Mounted Series On Watergate Scandal

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Gaslit Review: (Courtesy: gaslitstarz)

Cast: Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens, Shea Whigham

Director: Matt Ross
 

Rating: Three stars (out of 5)
 

Martha, who? The befuddlement is understandable because the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell is no more than a stray footnote in history half a century after the Watergate scandal brought down a President. Back in her time, however, Martha Mitchell was ubiquitous on television screens and in the newspapers thanks to her outspoken views on matters that were deigned to be out of bounds in the early 1970s for wives of powerful American men.

It is Martha Mitchell’s little-known story that the highly watchable Gaslit, a Starz series premiering on Lionsgate Play on April 24, brings to the screen. The show has both style and substance. Add to that the fact that the lead actress Julia Roberts is always on the ball as the celebrated Arkansas socialite and one half of a Washington power couple who thrives on being in the media spotlight and you have a series that holds your attention for the most part.

Created and written by Robbie Pickering – he shares the writing responsibilities with several others, including Amelia Gray – and directed by Matt Ross, Gaslit also stars a completely unrecognizable Sean Penn as John Mitchell, a loud-mouthed and abrasive Nixon aide whose marriage is put under huge strain on account of Martha’s determination to call out the illegalities that are afoot in the White House.

Penn, behind a thick layer of prosthetics and under a balding pate and forehead wrinkles, captures the deleterious idiosyncrasies of the then US attorney-general to perfection. It is not the actor’s fault that the transformation that he has undergone to get into the skin of the character takes the focus away a touch from the performance and places it on the physical appearance of the man. It is fascinating to watch Penn do a balancing act between the material dimensions and the internal dynamics of the role.

The Mitchells love each other but the realities around them and the inner workings of the White House, aggravated by an ill-advised conspiracy hatched by a bunch of incompetent and idiotic men who take it upon themselves to ensure that Nixon wins a second term as President.

Their nefarious operation to wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D.C. is bust open by a vigilant security guard on his first night on the job. A cover-up attempt is instantly set rolling but given the quality of the men behind it, it is doomed endeavour. Like the break-in at the Watergate Building, the bid to wriggle out of the consequences of act is bungled.

The mess that All the President’s Men created was most famously dramatized in the 1976 film, which viewed the events leading up to and following the Watergate break-in through the eyes of the two Washington Post scribes who broke the story – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

In other films of variable quality such as Frost/Nixon, The Post, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Dick and The Post, the men who scripted one of the darkest chapters of US history did not find the sort of space that Gaslit gives them.

Two of them – White House counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens) and G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), the former FBI man who spearheaded the Watergate burglary driven by his naked Neo-Nazi inclinations – are accorded a great amount of time in Gaslit. The former denotes the ineptitude of the White House team, the latter represents blind, hateful zeal.

Stevens fleshes out, with a sufficient degree of ambiguity, the ambitious but feckless lawyer who, when cornered, turns on Nixon. The character struggles to cling on to the love of his life, flight attendant Mo (Betty Gilpin), whom he pursues despite their ideological differences and marries.

Gilpin’s presence – significant if not substantial – not only provides a sounding board for the morally middled John Dean but also serves as a mirror in which the audience can see a reflection of her man’s descent into confusion and self-doubt.

Stevens’ performance is overshadowed by that of Whigham, a deranged man who is not to be deflected from his path come what may. Gaslit is characterized by restrained acting all around – Whigham as a psychotic ‘villain’ is the only one who is granted the luxury of letting it rip. He makes the most of the opportunity and often comes close to walking away with the entire series.

If that does not actually come to pass, it is solely because Julia Roberts, despite being frequently pushed off the centre of the plot by the need to follow the fates of the men who took a President down with them, does not yield any ground. She paints a fascinating portrait of a woman in dire need of both love and assertion. While one weakens her, the other emboldens her to keep going even as a wedge is inevitably driven between her and her husband.

The man Martha is married to has a self-destructive streak. He thinks nothing of holding his wife captive in a California hotel to stop her from speaking out against the goings-on in the White House. Martha, on her part, has had a troubled childhood and grapples with a drinking problem, which makes it easy for detractors to dismiss her as a crazy drunk given to overreacting.

The superbly mounted Gaslit not only gives the audience multiple perspectives, it also constructs a very human version of the story that the world has seen on several occasions but through limited prisms. Importantly, it tells a 50-year-old story with a modern twist, alluding to a Republican Party in the clutches of myopic bigots bent upon subverting democracy, much like it is at the current juncture.

The show compresses a whole range of parameters into its plot with the purpose of bringing to the fore what impact the Watergate scandal had on micro and personal levels for those who masterminded the deed or were instrumental in exposing it.

Lesser figures in the larger story – such as Frank Wills (Patrick Walker), the young security guard who was the first to detect the break-in, and Angelo Lano (Christopher Messina) and Paul Magallanes (Carlos Valdez), two of the FBI field agents who investigated the case, ferreted out crucial details and deposed before the Senate committee – find a place in Gaslit.

Gaslit works because it isn’t only about the Watergate break-in – in the show, it occurs as early as in Episode 2 – but also about the people whose lives and careers were made or unmade by the scandal. The show covers more ground than ever before and, give or take a few dull patches, it does so with a steady hand. And, of course, Julia Roberts is on screen, she shines and lights it all up.

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