'Gaslit' Review: Sean Penn & Julia Roberts' Quirky Watergate Series Is Coen-Brothers-Esque

“Gaslit” has a funny way of recalling a dark moment in American history. It takes a step back and asks: what if Watergate was more of a Coen brothers farce than the tense, paranoid ‘70s thrillers that came after it? That air of absurdity, of eccentric morons making plans that were far from airtight, introduces the amusing disgust of this story. Playing with historical events in an intimate lens (and based on the Slate podcast “Slow Burn”), “Gaslit” wonders what it might be like if complicit Attorney General John Mitchell just left his espionage checklist on the bedside for his wife Martha Mitchell to see, or that when the involved criminals were questioned by authorities, most of them clammed up like pre-teens caught smoking. It’s a striking tonal approach, and while it’s not assembled dramatically or comedically to hit you in the gut, “Gaslit” does humanize the events, and finds a new way to make them compelling. 

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Created by Robbie Pickering (“Natural Selection”) with all episodes of the Starz series directed by Matt Ross (“Captain Fantastic”), “Gaslit” transposes a modern, indie-familiar quirkiness onto a story that rarely is shown with this much scope, light, and self-amusement. It’s a revolving door of recognizable and striking faces, either with character actors or with big names like Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, the latter wearing sometimes-distracting prosthetics to become Attorney General John Mitchell, a self-proclaimed “best friend” of President Richard Nixon. Penn’s Mitchell, as monstrous and gravelly as he likes to play them, is one of many people in this story whose most prized values (marriage? Nixon?) are put into grotesque close-up.  

Of all the memorable mugs that bounce around “Gaslit,” Shea Whigham is the first we see, as the bonkers G. Gordon Liddy, making some tyrannical speech while holding his hand over the flame. His unhinged bravado matches the thickness of his bushy, black mustache; it’s a scene-stealing role, and Liddy is the key to the circus. Always barreling into scenes and later chewing through them, he initially he gets laughed out of the office when he shares more sinister plans to spy on the Democratic National Convention. But then he helps land on what became Watergate, and the rest is history. It’s one of Whigham’s funniest and very best performances, and the free-reign it gives him later in the season is a type of justice for him not having starred in a Coen brothers movie before. 

Whigham is the stand-out among a batch of welcome actors bought into the fray—like Hamish Linklater, John Carroll Lynch, Nat Faxon, Martha Kelly, Nelson Franklin, Allison Tolman, and Patton Oswalt for good measure—who are cast in part for their distinct features and the way they can make the series’ time-warp seem kinda funny. Neuroses is crammed into Dan Stevens’ performance as John Dean, a type of clumsy putz working under Nixon. He’s a go-getter introduced as being loyal enough to serve the likes of John Mitchell, but also someone with a nagging conscience. Stevens gives a performance that is amusing but can be too pointed; his emotional journey of looking toward truth, guided by his initially disgusted partner Mo (an excellent Betty Gilpin), while initially looking for Nixon’s loving embrace, is not as wrenching as the story may want us to think. 

A series like “Gaslit” loves dunking on Republicans and conservative Washington, and more power to it. But in trying to find some nuance in its story, it does become heavy-handed in discussing the gender dynamics, with the women often written to be simply maternal and supportive to the frightened or jaded men in their lives, like John and his partner Mo. Like many parts of this tale, however true these parts may be, they are handled in a way that makes for obvious emotional beats, or dialogue that’s too pristine and takes one out of the story. 

With its narrative scope, “Gaslit” seeks to illuminate the stories that are left out of casual discussions of the scandal, like that of Watergate hotel security guard Frank Wills (Patrick R. Walker), who noticed something was wrong and got Liddy’s men caught. Frank’s story, at least in the first seven episodes of the series, drags in creating a fuller picture, though it does clue us into what happened to Wills after Watergate—he became known in the media, and struggled to get hired. Walker’s performance is compelling and charismatic in showing this tough spot, even if there seems to be more to be said. 

The series comes with the exciting presence of Julia Roberts, in her first on-screen work since 2018. As Martha Mitchell, she holds an outspoken Southern regality and individuality, refusing to be in her husband’s shadow even though each media appearance has her speaking out against Nixon, which seems to make her husband loathe her more. Her story is one of finding her voice even against the forces that try to forcefully silence her, and Roberts plays both the dramatic, internal moments with a notable tenderness. She helps reinstate Martha’s importance in the story as someone who knew what was going on, but had a love for her husband she chose to believe in more. (Penn and Roberts have plenty of chemistry in the scenes that show both their long bond, and the abuse he unleashed on her.)

Roberts’ performance is less of a problem in such a role than the plotting, which stretches her story and takes away from its emotional momentum. Her unique perspective in Washington, and her position to tell the truth, is fascinating, but it’s one of those plot-lines that would shine brighter as its own story. The series can struggle with rhythm when its story is about characters choosing to speak up, and that slowness is felt most of all in Martha’s arc. 

The collective pain that Martha experiences is no anomaly in the universe of “Gaslit,” which changes from a quirky Watergate reexamination, into a compilation of fraught love stories, of characters having to choose between loyalty and what is right. Their individual answers threaten the nation, and damage their own personal relationships. “Gaslit” can struggle to make a smooth change quirky to gut-wrenching, but the series effectively takes the events of Watergate—and many of its behind-the-scenes people—out from the shadows. [B-]