Gaslit, review: Julia Roberts shines in the forgotten story behind the Watergate scandal

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Sean Penn as John Mitchell and Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in Gaslit - StarzPlay
Sean Penn as John Mitchell and Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in Gaslit - StarzPlay

Welcome back, Julia Roberts. While her peers – well, mainly Nicole Kidman – have been all over TV and film projects in recent times, it has been four years since Roberts last appeared. For her return, she’s chosen an absolute crackerjack of a role in Gaslit (StarzPlay).

Martha Mitchell is a footnote in the Watergate scandal: the wife of John Mitchell, US Attorney General under Richard Nixon, she got wind of the dirty tricks around the president’s 1972 re-election campaign and blew the whistle. But that really isn’t the half of it. An opinionated and limelight-loving woman – dubbed “the Mouth from the South” – she was regarded as such a liability by both her husband and the party that they tried to stop her from going to the press by arranging for her to be held hostage in a hotel room, where she was roughed up and forcibly injected with a sedative.

That is the most shocking and distressing scene in Gaslit, but the series also provides plenty of humour. We are a world away from All the President’s Men. Gaslit throws so many characters into the mix that the tone can be uneven – from screwball to serious drama in the same episode – but always engrossing. The spotlight is on the Watergate characters who were right at the centre of the scandal but who have faded from public memory.

One of them is Gordon Liddy, who oversaw the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and who is played by Shea Whigham as entirely unhinged. The operation he runs is a farce. We also follow Dan Stevens as John Dean, White House counsel who became a key witness for the prosecution. This is Stevens’s best work, a deftly comic performance that allows him to shake off the Downton Abbey tag once and for all. John Mitchell is played with restraint by Sean Penn, buried beneath layers of prosthetic blubber.

For those who like to get into the nitty-gritty of history, this is illuminating stuff. And at the centre of it all is Roberts, flashing that megawatt smile and bringing depth to the depiction of a woman who in her day was often reduced to caricature.

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