‘Gaslit’ Tells a Compelling Story of Lesser-Known Watergate Players

Few events in American political history have fascinated the nation quite like the Watergate scandal. The Starz limited series “Gaslit” focuses on some of the lesser-known characters involved in and adjacent to the Richard Nixon administration. Julia Roberts and Sean Penn lead an ensemble cast as Martha and John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general and his outspoken wife who became a celebrity in her own right. The title “Gaslit” comes from Martha’s being gaslighted by Nixon’s people after she connects the dots surrounding the infamous break-in of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate Office Building.

Although Penn, who is almost unrecognizable under all the prosthetics he wears to resemble the corpulent Mitchell, is billed as the second lead, he largely takes a backseat not only to Roberts, but also to Shea Whigham and Dan Stevens, who play G. Gordon Liddy and John Dean, both attorneys working in the White House. While these two men are drastically different in many ways, they both suffer from delusions of grandeur, especially the profoundly intense Liddy, who imagines himself the leader of a crusade to save America from communists and the rest of the “feeble masses.” Dean, meanwhile, holds much of the same beliefs as Liddy, although his relationship with Mo (Betty Gilpin), a left-leaning flight attendant and aspiring novelist, causes him to slowly transform into something resembling a decent human being. 

A lot of humor is milked out of Dean being a patsy and his desperation to be close to the president, and his need to make a name for himself in the White House leads to his unholy alliance with Liddy and the rest of the toxic men involved in the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, also called CREEP, who orchestrate the Watergate break-in that occurs on June 17, 1972. These men include Mitchell, as well as the deputy director of Nixon’s re-election campaign, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (Nat Faxon), political operative Jeb Stuart Magruder (Hamish Linklater), and another Nixon lawyer, Charles Colson (Patton Oswalt). Their bumbling ineptitude is played for laughs, and they miraculously manage to get away with the crime, at least initially, while CIA officer James McCord (Chris Bauer) and five Cuban accomplices recruited by Liddy, including one played by Pablo Schreiber, face a steep penalty.

While Whigham, Stevens et al give fine performances, and Whignam will almost certainly snag an Emmy, it is Roberts who steals the show as the charismatic and complex Martha. Although the name Martha Mitchell is largely unknown today, she became famous for her candor in the press, which led to numerous print interviews and television appearances. Known for calling up reporters in the middle of the night to tell all, we see her here strike up a relationship with Ladies’ Home Journal writer Winnie McLendon (Allison Tolman), who becomes the first person she confides in after her husband has her held hostage in a California hotel room immediately following Watergate, a brutally traumatic experience. As McCord previously worked in their home, Mitchell is fearful his wife will see him in the news and out his White House connection to the press.

It would have been easy to simply write Martha as an empty-headed attention-seeker, but Roberts, director Matt Ross and creator Robbie Pickering bring lawyers to her. She’s an enthusiastic party hostess who sees herself as a rival to FLOTUS Pat Nixon on the D.C. social scene, although the rivalry is most likely one-sided. Raised poor in the South by a troubled father, she made her own destiny that led her to New York native and power player Mitchell. Although officially a conservative –– she’s called a “retrograde segregationist” at one point –– she’s far from traditional, and she goes against the Republican party with her vocal opposition to the Vietnam War (her son is a soldier).

Other key characters include the two FBI agents investigating Watergate who find the link between the perpetrators and the White House, Angelo Lano (Chris Messina) and Paul Magallanes (Carlos Valdes). The duo play off of each other well, as while Angelo seems to believe good will eventually prevail, Paul is more pragmatic. It is Paul who correctly surmises early on that the people behind the break-in aren’t criminal masterminds, but mere morons. Paul is one of multiple minority characters showcased here. Others include Frank Willis (Patrick R. Walker), the young Black Watergate security guard who calls the police the night of the break-in, and the aforementioned Cuban men, who see Nixon’s re-election as being their only chance to see Fidel Castro ousted. 

Finally, “Gaslit” feels rather timely, as we see here a Republican party on the precipice of change, as they moved toward the era of Ronald Reagan and so-called Christian family values. The transformation does not seem unlike what the current G.O.P. is going through post-Trump and the Jan. 6 riot.

Gaslit” premieres April 24 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.