The best movies and TV shows about our past have something to say about our present.
A deep dive into the Watergate scandal in 2022, for instance, should probably be more than just a rehash of events children learn in high school history courses.
Starz’s “Gaslit” (Sunday, 8 EDT/PDT, ★★★ out of four) is one of those projects that avoids being just a rotate lesson. The eight-episode series starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn is funny, fierce and even occasionally profound as it unfolds the farcical events of the scandal, from the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters to the FBI investigation to the congressional hearings to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Although later episodes lose their way a bit, the majority of “Gaslit” is a surprisingly fun romp through a dark period of American history that also manages to avoid being too light-hearted. “Gaslit,” based on the Slate podcast “Slow Burn,” is less a story of the scandal itself and more about collateral damage: the people’s whose lives were changed forever because of clumsy burglars, from an unlucky security guard to the wife of the Attorney General.
That wife is infamous Arkansas-born socialite Martha Mitchell, brought to life with a drawl and a smile by Roberts, bringing her star power to TV alongside Penn, who is buried under a mountain of latex makeup to play her husband, John Mitchell. The series’ focus is on Martha, but also spends time on the stories of Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy (played as a deranged and terrifying conspirator by Shea Whigham) and White House counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens, with a suspect American accent). The stacked cast also includes Patton Oswalt, Nat Faxon, Betty Gilpin, Chris Messina and Allison Tolman.
These characters require very little embellishment from Hollywood screenwriters to be entertaining, particularly Martha and Liddy. One of the greatest strengths of “Gaslit” is to lean into the absurdity of Watergate rather than the corruption. It mines humor from unexpected places, with notoriously serious actors like Penn providing easy guffaws. At one point, the FBI agents tasked with investigating the break-in (Messina and Carlos Valdes) muse whether the conspirators they’re chasing are masterminds or idiots, and “Gaslit” certainly argues for the latter.
“Gaslit” takes its title from the heinous treatment of Martha, who was held hostage in her California hotel room to prevent her from contacting the press were she to recognize one of the Watergate burglars. Roberts offers a triumphant portrayal, evoking Martha without the need for overzealous styling like her ella co-star, Penn, whose performance is overshadowed by all that makeup.
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Occasionally the scripts skip over salient details from the scandal, expecting viewers to fill in the blanks. But there’s a wide gap of knowledge between those who lived through Watergate and those who learned about it from history books and secondhand stories. At various moments “Gaslit” feels like it’s written more for the folks who can remember watching the hearings, which alienates a portion of the potential audience. It also suffers when later episodes lose focus and momentum after Liddy goes to prison and Martha’s life and marriage begin to return. While Whigham’s performance is a hoot, too much time spent on the inane ramblings of the admitted Nazi is unpleasant.
The divided, unjust and troubled America of 1972 “Gaslit” presents is eerily reminiscent of the divided, unjust and troubled America of 2022: Angry supporters of the president sport “Defend Nixon” bumper stickers, enraged partisans take advantage of turmoil and everyday people are suffering.
By far the best episode of the seven made available for preview focuses not on politicians, journalists or FBI agents but on security guard Frank Wills (Patrick R. Walker), who discovered the taped-up door after the DNC break-in and called the police. Wills is the most heartbreaking victim of the scandal, publicly lauded but privately unemployable in Washington, where potential bosses see him as a political figure when he’s just a private citizen who was doing his job.
Ultimately “Gaslit” is a story that reminds us that life isn’t even a little bit fair. In the polarization of our current era, it’s both fun to laugh at “Gaslit” and important to remember the lessons of history.