What I see? In Gaslit, Julia Roberts looks at Watergate through the prism of farce

Julia Roberts in the Starzplay miniseries Gaslit

Julia Roberts in the Starzplay miniseries Gaslit

Gaslit (United States/2022). Creator: Robbie Pickering. Cast: Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, Shea Wigham, Darby Camp, Chris Bauer, Allison Tolman, Chris Messina, Carlos Valdes, John Carroll Lynch. Available in: Starz Play, DirecTV Go, Movistar Play. Our opinion: very good.

Of all the Watergate protagonists, Martha Mitchell was always the missing link. That pawn who made a key move on the board of American politics and was later overshadowed by the fame of the most important pieces. She was the wife of Richard Nixon’s first presidency attorney general, John Mitchell. An Arkansas woman whose brashness and her daring link with the press earned her unexpected fame in the late 1960s and growing rejection in Washington power circles. Mitchell was plain Martha to journalists, that extravagant hostess who turned a casual interview into an hour of juicy television, capable of making suspicious comments about Vietnam or irritating Pat Nixon by undermining the first lady’s agenda with her statements. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Watergate case, the series Gaslit refloats the figure of Martha Mitchell and reconstructs the events that determined Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in the key of a black comedy: a harsh and critical portrait of that time, intervened by the sharp humor of satire.

Created by Robbie Pickering, one of the screenwriters of mr robotand directed by Matt Ross (captain fantastic), the Starz Play series – which premiered in April in the United States and has been available for just over a week in our country – begins with the figure of the lawyer John Dean (excellent dan stevens) on one of his sexual excursions during Washington naps. As he fires his occasional mistress, the figure of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) appears on the television in one of his interviews with pure verbiage. Not only is the impact that Martha caused in the media clear, but also the type of environment that surrounded Nixon, infected by his bizarre personalism and his growing crusade against enemy forces by american way of life. Dean is the perfect gateway to the story, a clumsy, subservient man, thirsty for adulation and recognition, concerned as much with his ego as with the gloss of his new Porsche. He will be the one to lead the team led by Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), the ferocious undercover agent who masterminded the espionage at Watergate, to the White House basements.

John Dean (Dan Stevens) and Maureen Kane (Betty Gilplin) formed a key couple in the reveal of Watergate and in the portrayal of Nixon's entourage in the White House.

John Dean (Dan Stevens) and Maureen Kane (Betty Gilplin) formed a key couple in the reveal of Watergate and in the portrayal of Nixon’s entourage in the White House.

There is a dialogue that is perfect to illustrate Pickering’s approach to the famous scandal. After the assault on the Watergate building commanded by James McCord (Chris Bauer), a former bodyguard of the Mitchell family, two FBI agents begin the investigation of the case until they discover the threads that lead beyond the hypothesis of a simple robbery of the Democratic committee. When they arrive to interview Gordon Liddy as one of the possible organizers of the sabotage, agent Paul Magallanes (Carlos Valdes), scorned again and again for his Latino origin inside and outside the FBI, tells his partner Angelo Lano (Chris Messina ), another immigrant, but of Italian origin: “Do you remember when we said that this should be a professional operation, that these people should always be five steps ahead of us? What if we’re wrong? What if they’re just idiots?” Those unanswered questions are barely heard over the noises from the next office, where Liddy destroys all papers that might compromise his sacred mission.

Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) and Howard Hunt (JC MacKenzie) were the two architects of the sabotage of the Democratic committee and two of the pieces of the farce that Gaslit builds on Watergate.

Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) and Howard Hunt (JC MacKenzie) were the two architects of the sabotage of the Democratic committee and two of the pieces of the farce that Gaslit builds on Watergate.

The story cunningly forks between the course of the events that marked Watergate -the assault on the Democrats’ office, the espionage cover-up, the progressive police and journalistic investigation that gave rise to the famous informants such as Deep Throat-, and the story of Martha Mitchell in relation to the event: the kidnapping in California to silence her, the deterioration of her health and her marriage (who plays John Mitchell is an unrecognizable Sean Penn under tons of makeup), her decisive action for the revelation of the truth.

While in the first line the portrait feeds on farce –the ridiculous pathos of the members of that group, the absurd mixture of messianic fanaticism and political myopia–, the second line that Martha leads proposes a perspective look at the events: her tragic and deeply painful dimension that links the experience of that woman with her environment, her marriage, her family and her social place, at the same time that it exposes the trauma of a nation that would not come out unscathed from those events, no matter how ridiculous they may seem from the outside.

Julia Roberts humanizes and offers a tragic halo to the eccentric figure of Martha Mitchell and her crucial role in the Watergate scandal.

Julia Roberts humanizes and offers a tragic halo to the eccentric figure of Martha Mitchell and her crucial role in the Watergate scandal. – Credits: @Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

Gaslit finds a fair balance in the recreation of that time from the tragedy and farce that defined the end of the Nixon government. But above all he perceives – just as he did Mrs America regarding the campaign for equal rights and the conservative reaction led by Phyllis Schlafly – the long-term importance of certain events in the history of peoples and the true stature of its various participants. Martha Mitchell is less a heroine of the Watergate case than the architect of the revelation of the cost of impunity and lies as ways of exercising power. After all, Martha wasn’t crazy, she was just right.

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