Gaslit review: Julia Roberts and Sean Penn deliver masterful performances in gripping retelling of 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. Also read: Sean Penn joins Ukrainian refugees to Poland on foot, makes it out safely: ‘Walked miles to the Polish border’

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.

The series is based on the first season of the critically-acclaimed podcast Slow Burn. Leon Neyfakh, who created the podcast, consulted on the project.

The series’ humour takes a dark tone, interspersed with elements of thriller and political drama. It decided to tell the story as one of incompetence. It does not portray the men who orchestrated the scandal as some devious masterminds but as bumbling idiots, who stumble their way through the biggest political conspiracy America saw at the time. And that alone makes it a must-watch. Projecting it as a farce makes it more enjoyable, even if it does take something away from the seriousness of it all. After all, a US President did get impeached for it. It wasn’t all that ‘stupid’.

The cast elevates the show, particularly Julia and Sean. The two veteran actors so seamlessly immerse themselves into the Mitchells that you easily forget you are watching two Hollywood stars in action. Granted, Sean Penn’s prosthetics and make-up help in making him unrecognisable but the actor brings out his A-game to infuse life into John Mitchell. Julia Roberts is easily his match as the outspoken and witty socialite Martha. They both ensure that their portrayal, while accurate, does not fall into the caricature zone.

The supporting cast has been brilliant too, particularly Shea Whigham as the shady lawyer/FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. Shea is at home, channelling his Boardwalk Empire and Fargo energy in an arresting performance as the foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Liddy. Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin do their part wonderfully as the show’s moral compass. As a viewer, I wished there was more of these two in the narrative.

Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin in a still from Gaslit.

But the show is not perfect. It has its chinks. It is almost three tales in one—the first being the story of the Mitchells and the rise and fall of their marriage and political careers. The second is the scandal itself and the third is how John Dean and Maureen Kane (Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin) view it all as the proverbial outsiders. The three narratives are not seamlessly stitched and the change in tone gets jarring at times. In places, it does look like the show is trying too much and achieving too little, in terms of finesse at least, if not entertainment.

Gaslit’s timing makes it an important show. The Watergate scandal highlighted Nixon’s position as something of an autocrat, who was willing to bend rules and break laws to win and undermine opposition. This talk of abuse of power is relevant today when the concept is being talked about globally, with reference to various world leaders. And Gaslit talks about these issues as something contemporary and relevant even if the story itself is dated.

Created and executive produced by Robbie Pickering, and directed by Matt Ross, Gaslit is produced by UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group. The series premiered in India on Lionsgate Play on April 25.

Series: Gaslit

Creator: Robbie Pickering

Cast: Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, Shea Whigham, Darby Camp, and Aleksandar Filimonović


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