tv review

Gaslit Has No Use for Heroes

Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz

In the 46 years since the release of All the President’s Men, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein remain central to the narrative of the Watergate cover-up and Richard Nixon’s downfall. Other journalists would’ve likely caught onto the story eventually, but it was Woodward and Bernstein’s persistence that made public the connection between the president and the group of U.S. intelligence-affiliated operatives arrested at the Watergate. The Washington Post’s role in Nixon’s 1975 resignation is indisputable, yet the Starz miniseries Gaslit provides a surprisingly engrossing counter to the established narrative by mostly ignoring it.

Gone is the rhythm of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting in All the President’s Men, their knocking on doors that get slammed in their faces, their calling the White House and hearing different versions of the same encounter, their squabbling over word choice and sparring with their editors. In its place, Gaslit centers the people who were punished by Nixon for refusing to acquiesce to his increasingly paranoid demands, and who have been mostly expunged from the commonly accepted version of events in the decades since. When the series, which premieres April 24, succeeds at that reframing, it’s a taut, stylishly shot thriller that finds horror in unblinking submission, groupthink, and the sexist dynamics too easily reinforced by the mainstream media’s coverage of outspoken female figures.

Gaslit can be a little simplistic about that latter point, with the cutesy logline “Watergate was wrong. Martha was right,” referring to Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general and campaign chairman John Mitchell. She was seemingly hated by everyone in the administration for her tendency to criticize the president in the media; scripts by series creator Robbie Pickering over-rely on words like “hysteria” and “bitch” to convey how reviled Martha became, even by her own family. Gaslit sometimes mistakes tonal sleaze for period-appropriate ’70s squalor, so when the series missteps, which it intermittently does, it’s because it feels too comfortable in its sense of hindsight and too mannered for a show that could be infused with as much chaos as the time it’s depicting. The similarly backward-looking Winning Time at least knows that the way to tell the story of excess is to be excessive.

Nevertheless, the members of Gaslit’s uniformly well-acted ensemble hold the door open to this grimy story and usher us through, including a brassy Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, a steady Dan Stevens as White House counsel John Dean, and just about any character actor you could ever want: Betty Gilpin, Hamish Linklater, Nat Faxon, Shea Whigham stealing every scene he’s in. Whether re-creating snippets of the historical record (Martha’s detainment and forced sedation at her husband and Nixon’s orders once the Watergate news broke) or indulging in bizarre fantasy (Whigham’s imprisoned G. Gordon Liddy imagining his Nazi-sympathizing nanny guiding him into Heaven’s golden glow), the actors’ measured choices make their characters’ motivations real. Even Sean Penn, whose eyes are his only recognizable feature under layers of prosthetics, brings his Mitchell to glimmering, callous life through glares, sighs, and hard-edged line deliveries. When avoiding the sway of its own hyperbole, Gaslit illuminates the coldness of complicity and charts how the clannish codependency of the Nixon White House would shape American politics for decades to come.

Pickering’s series, adapted from the podcast Slow Burn, splits its time between various factions of the Republican Party, which is the country’s dominant political force when the series begins in January 1972. Nixon (whom Gaslit smartly doesn’t show onscreen in the seven of eight episodes provided for review) is comfortably ahead in the polls as the November presidential election looms, but his post–Pentagon Papers paranoia cannot be contained. He has an army of cronies within the White House and the intelligence community keeping tabs on anyone involved in social justice or activist movements, and his mania and zeal legitimize and embolden them; Whigham loads a lifetime of resentment into his sneering line delivery of Liddy’s list of enemies: “feeble masses, pissants, commies, queers, and the women.”

The premiere episode lays this out through conversations between Dean, Mitchell, and Jeb Magruder (Linklater), deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. The somewhat naïve, ladder-climbing Dean is desperate to get ahead, but he still hesitates at Magruder’s directive to go from “rooting out leaks to rat-fucking the Democrats.” Gaslit then switches focus to Martha Mitchell, whose 16-year marriage is beginning to sour thanks to her drinking, her husband’s impenetrable loyalty to the president, and her willingness to share gossip about the Nixons with reporters. The Mitchells are in their “jokes and silences and occasional rough sex and campaign business” stage, Martha says, and the wistful, resentful look on Roberts’s face communicates so much about what Martha thinks she’s deserved and worries she’s lost. As much as she loves Mitchell, she also loves the attention she gets for her forthrightness as “the infamous mouth of the South,” and Roberts gets the opportunity to go full Erin Brockovich with lines like “I decided long ago I will say how I feel, and if that does not conform to the president’s message, so be it.”

As inevitable as the Watergate break-in, which occurs in the second episode, is the sense that Martha’s “so be it” is a kind of premonition. Director Matt Ross presents the former with a kind of grim humor, but everything with Martha has the tenor of a nightmare and a tragedy, from the condescending pat on the head she receives from her abductor to the increasing venom with which Mitchell treats her. When Penn spits out, “I love you, Martha, because you’re America’s clown, and you’re a pig,” it is impressively furious and genuinely galling, and Ross lets the moment linger into unshakable discomfort.

Much of Gaslit’s plot is set in motion by the failed DNC bugging and Martha’s successful detainment, and as the series progresses, it’s more interested in the fallout from those two events than in clearly tracking the investigations causing all this trouble. That repositioning means two scenes with the series version of Bob Woodward (Stephen Todt), one of which he shares with Mark Felt/Deep Throat (Reed Diamond), feel perfunctory not just because of their brevity, but because Gaslit simply isn’t committed to people outside Nixon’s circle. Its narrative mission is delineating how the inside tore itself apart through betrayals and backstabbing, and the scenes that focus on the construction and destruction of those relationships are the most compelling.

Gaslit messes a bit with fact and fiction, but doesn’t make any significant thematic swerves. This is a series about the cascade effect of what the Nixon administration normalized in politics (“Every lie we allow erodes our sense of truth” is a very post-Trump line), and about how women are punished for transcending what men expect of them. When Nixon and his allies are described as “just morons,” we might feel slightly smug as viewers, secure in our knowledge that we got him. But Gaslit is doing something a little subversive with its treatment of Dean, who emerges as the series’ co-lead alongside Martha. He has the affectations of an old-school Republican: “Fuck communism,” reads a glowing neon sign in Dean’s apartment, and Gaslit pairs the reveal of that motto with a bemused scoff from Gilpin as his eventual wife Mo. (She’ll have the same reaction to his Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine vinyl.) Mo disagrees with practically everything Dean believes, but she falls for him anyway, and Gaslit is clever in how it makes Dean seem, when placed next to everyone else working for Nixon, not so bad.

He’s not Bob Haldeman, who tries to pin Watergate on Mitchell after luring him into a meeting in Nixon’s bugged office. He’s not Mitchell, who alternately lavishes Martha with affection and physically assaults her. He’s not Liddy, a Hitler-worshipping maniac. In Dean’s moderation, could he be the one good man this story needs? Gaslit complicates our assumptions with a late-series exchange that almost feels like a chastising finger-wag at an audience who would look for heroes among those who did Nixon’s bidding. Obedience is not the same as conscience, and even as it experiments with perspective and exaggerates some of its players into caricature, Gaslit never lets itself blur those lines.

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Gaslit Has No Use for Heroes