Movie Reviews: THE MARTHA MITCHELL EFFECT and GASLIT

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This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and the political scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s eventual resignation from office on August 8, 1974. It was a turning point in US history.

As you’ll remember from having lived through the events and era or having read about it in history books, the system-shocking break-in was perpetrated by ‘burglars’ who were affiliated with (actually employed by) Nixon’s re-election campaign committee in an attempt to ‘bug’ democratic headquarters…and give Nixon the edge.  

Daily investigative news reports deepened the scandal as they revealed that US Attorney General John Mitchell, one of Nixon’s closest advisors and the head of the president’s reelection committee, was clearly implicated in planning the break-in, a charge that he was trying to dodge.

Which brings us to Martha Mitchell, John’s outspoken wife and a popular presence in news media and on current events talk shows. Martha liked to talk, and talk she did – loudly proclaiming herself a valuable and reliable source of accurate information and expressing opinions that were not popular in regular Republican circles.

Martha Mitchell was an unlikely whistleblower, and her opinions and allegations were often seen as speculative, conjectural and rabblerousing – and dismissed. The press who loved to interview her put her center stage, although some of them actually treated her like a circus sideshow clown. Never-the-less, Richard Nixon was known to consider her a serious threat to his administration, and that had serious consequences for her — not all of them known at the time.

Martha passed away on May 31, 1976, but she and her opinions are center stage again, as media looks back and reconsiders the role she played in Watergate. In fact, Martha’s perspective is getting a new and updated viewing in two recently released, currently streaming films. The two movies take very different approaches to telling the Martha Mitchell story, but both are very engaging and compelling accounts that will show audiences that Mrs. Mitchell, who was ridiculed, characterized as emotionally disturbed, drugged and kept in isolation, was wronged, that her allegations about her husband’s mistreatment of her were truthful and that her interpretation of the Watergate events was right. Her contribution to history actually does warrant reevaluation.

Gaslit, released on STARZ on April 24 and still playing, is a long format narrative, an eight-episode series, created by showrunner/director Robbie Pickering and starring Julia Roberts as Martha and Sean Penn as John Mitchell.

Written by Pickering with Amelia Gray and Uzoamaka Maduka, the episodic script is extremely well researched, consummately detailed, and grippingly dramatic as it follows the unstable relationship of the influential, glamourous couple as they fought and made up, manipulated each other, exerted influence over each other and, ultimately, abandoned each other.

In this fictionalized account of their relationship, Martha is indeed provocative. But, John is clearly the culprit, and Martha’s days in captivity by his staff are harrowing. Roberts and Penn transform themselves in their performances. The series is highly dramatic, fascinating and binge-worthy.

But if Gaslit leaves you wanting to know the real Martha up close and personal, The Martha Mitchell Effect, a 40-minute fact-filled documentary now streaming on Netflix, provides you with the opportunity to really dig in.

Filmmakers Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy focus on actual Watergate events, rather than the complicated relationship issues between Martha and John, but in doing so, they do deem Martha a wronged woman. In fact the title of their film is actually a term that is now used officially to refer to “the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health clinician or other medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in misdiagnosis.” The filmmakers use a wide range of archival footage, including clips of Martha, John, Richard Nixon, many noted and highly credible news commentators—and even the doctor who was called in to drug Martha — that prove conclusively that Nixon cronies, including John, were responsible for Martha’s deliberate misdiagnosed and mistreatment.

The release of Gaslit and The Martha Mitchell Effect are bound to rekindle the Martha Mitchell controversy. Was she righteous and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of nation or did she loudly and disruptively stir things up because she craved public attention?

Whichever way you answer that question, and whatever side of the aisle your political inclinations sit on, and whether you subscribe to a government official’s wife’s right to spill the beans on the administration’s misdoings or not, you’ll be pressed to acknowledge that both of these films – the narrative and the documentary – show the very public shaming and abuse of a women who deserved better, who wanted transparency in government and summed up her purpose as “Teaching politicians to be straight and not crooked.” Watch the films and heed Martha Mitchell’s advice.

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