Gaslit review | Julia Roberts and Sean Penn deliver masterful performances in gripping retelling of Watergate scandal

Gaslit review: Julia Roberts and Sean Penn’s performances are the icing on the cake in this gripping watch that takes a fresh, semi-humourous angle on the Watergate scandal.

The Watergate scandal is one of the most talked-about episodes from modern American history. There have been countless books and documentaries on it and it has found mention in several big-budget films over the years, ranging from All the President’s Men to Frost/Nixon and even Forrest Gump. Hence, the biggest challenge for the Starz/Lionsgate Play web series Gaslit was to bring something new to the table. While dealing with such an episode from recent history that has likely been done to death, you do need a fresh perspective. And here, Gaslit and its creator Robbie Pickering excel. Not only does the show tell new stories from newer vantage points but does it in an engaging manner that makes Gaslit a delightful watch.

A star rating of 4 out of 5.

It would be easy to say that the Watergate scandal has never felt more timely but let’s be honest – it’s been timely for a while.

Perhaps the scandal, in which the Nixon administration attempted to cover up breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, never truly lost its relevance – it’s just more easily relatable to certain scandals of our time now due to how brazen it all was.

It’s this ridiculousness that Gaslit plays with, highlighting the absurdity of the participants, their sycophantic loyalty and their woeful ineptitude. At one point in episode 3, an FBI agent remarks to his colleague: “You remember […] we were saying how this has to be a professional operation, that these guys gotta be five steps ahead of us? What if we’re wrong? What if they’re just morons?”

It would have been very easy to make this series a dark, brooding meditation on political corruption and the degradation of democracy, but thankfully the series takes the less easy, less expected and far more entertaining option of approaching serious themes with a light, comic touch.

Shea Whigham with his hand over a candle in Gaslight
Shea Whigham in Gaslit. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

Gaslit stars two Hollywood heavyweights, Sean Penn and Julia Roberts, ably supported by a strong ensemble cast featuring Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, Shea Whigham, Darby Camp, and Aleksandar Filimonović. It tells the story of President Richard Nixon’s subordinates, chiefly his Attorney General John N Mitchell (Sean Penn) and his wife Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts). It shows how Julia is the first person to raise alarm about the scandal despite her party affiliation, testing her husband’s loyalties.

Gaslit tells the story of Martha Mitchell, the socialite wife of Nixon’s Attorney General whose outspoken nature and insider knowledge made her the first person to publicly call out Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. The series also focuses on White House counsel member John Dean, whose allegiances similarly switched over time.

It all starts with a match-lit meditation from Shea Whigham’s character G. Gordon Liddy, who says: “History isn’t written by the feeble masses… it is written and re-written by soldiers carrying the banner of kings… that is what it means to be American.”

It’s a grandiose sequence, one which a lesser series would have used as a dramatic and self-serious statement of intent. Gaslit instead turns it on its head – as the story progresses, Liddy can be malicious and dangerous, but is largely treated as a semi-psychotic buffoon.

That’s not to say the series doesn’t ever take itself seriously – as the episodes progress the unfolding action does get increasingly dramatic and disturbing, particularly for Julia Roberts’ Martha Mitchell, who is targeted for knowing too much and being famously outspoken.

But when it does get serious it feels like it’s earned it, and these sequences are handled sensitively. It’s all the more gripping because of the shift in tone.

Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin in Gaslit
Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin in Gaslit Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

The decision to move the focus away from Nixon was inspired, as was the casting of both Roberts and Dan Stevens. Both are standouts despite being surrounded by a host of supremely talented actors putting in phenomenal work. Every time they are on screen they just light it up, carrying both the drama and the comedy with aplomb.

Sean Penn meanwhile has gone full Colin Farrell Penguin, with heavy make-up and prosthetics to play John Michell. The look works, with Penn genuinely unrecognisable, and it’s a strong but not exactly showy performance – even more than with Farrell, one wonders why they couldn’t find somebody who already resembled Mitchell. It’s not a problem, it’s just a bit confusing.

The series looks gorgeous, as could be expected, with lush visuals and transportive set design and costuming. The narrative can however, at times, feel meandering. The break-in happens in episode 2, and the plot really steps up a gear at the end of episode 4, but one could make the argument that the series could have been cut down. Still, when the journey is this entertaining, a couple more hours than is necessary with these people hardly feels like a penance.

We didn’t need another traditional retelling of Watergate, and we certainly didn’t need another allegorical fable about how Western democracy is going down the pan. But an under-told scandalous story told through a genuinely funny lens? Yes please.

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Claire Rogstad
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