Gaslit: Is this Julia Roberts' best ever performance?

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Friday 29 April 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
 
‘If it hadn’t been for Martha [Mitchell], there’d have been no Watergate.’ So declared Richard Nixon in his legendary interview with David Frost in 1977. With this in mind, it is extraordinary how little credit has been given to her in the scores of books that have been written and documentaries made about the downfall of the 37th US president, and the extraordinary revelations about corruption and crime in the White House that led to his public disgrace and resignation in August 1974.
 
As the wife of John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General and then campaign manager, Martha was perfectly placed to blow the whistle on the scandal – and did her best to do so at social events and in phone calls with journalists. Her reward for trying to do the right thing was brutal treatment by Nixon’s henchmen, systematic efforts to discredit and defame her, and a later life of obscurity and insecurity.
 
For their part, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – the Washington Post reporters who followed the trail from the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex, all the way to the Oval Office – barely mention Martha Mitchell in their original book, All The President’s Men. When Woodward visited the Essex House hotel on Central Park south where the Mitchells were staying in September 1972, he found her ‘anxious’, ‘fidgeting’ and reluctant to discuss ‘dirty politics’, concluding that ‘it had been a wasted trip’. 
 
In his memoir Blind Ambition, meanwhile, John Dean – the former counsel to the president, sentenced to prison for his part in the criminal conspiracy – writes about Martha purely as a ‘hysterical’ liability, an Arkansan socialite prone to ‘raising hell’. According to Dean’s deeply unsympathetic account: ‘From [John] Mitchell’s end of the conversations, I heard talk of doctors, sedation and alcohol. The pathos and despair of the scene were so immediate they cut through everything else. I knew Mitchell had more to contend with than Watergate.’
 
It is this demeaning caricature – of a reckless woman making life even more difficult for men of power struggling for political survival – that Gaslit (Starz), Robbie Pickering’s eight-episode drama (based on Leon Neyfakh’s Slow Burn podcast series) seeks to overturn. 
 
In one of her best performances in years, Julia Roberts portrays Martha as a shrewd and increasingly appalled observer of her husband’s plot to get Nixon re-elected at any cost. Sean Penn, barely recognisable in prosthetics, is also excellent as John Mitchell, Nixon’s attack dog and protector, often barely aware of his wife’s presence and ruthlessly manipulative in his attempts to control her.
 
Into the Mitchells’ circle saunters Dean (Dan Stevens), a silkily ambitious hypocrite whose longing for power and access to the president overcomes his instinct that the political espionage project with which he is entrusted will end in disaster. 
 
Much of the power of Gaslit lies in its gallows humour. Is it possible that these clueless, posturing macho men were able to destroy a presidency and wreck the self-confidence of a great democracy? Yes, most certainly.

This is the screwball comedy that acts as an overdue counterpart to the classic movie adaptation of All The President’s Men (1976), from which the energy and earnestness of Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein is etched into our collective cultural consciousness. On the other side of this mirror was a comedy of errors: of braggarts, blowhards, and entitled idiots. 
 
Psychologists now speak of the ‘Martha Mitchell Effect’ as an identifiable syndrome, in which a person’s justified beliefs are misrepresented as a delusion: a cruel affliction indeed, and one for which the woman who gave the clinical term its name paid a heavy price. Gaslit, at least, begins the process of rescuing Martha Mitchell from what, in a very different context, the historian EP Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.
 
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House

Watch


Shining Girls (Apple TV+ , 29 April)
In this eight-episode Apple TV+ adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls, Elizabeth Moss stars as Kirby Mazrachi, an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times and survivor of an assault. In Kirby’s case, trauma disrupts time itself, propelling her into alternate realities. ‘Everything is like always, and then it’s not,’ she says to her mother. ‘Nothing is where it should be, and I don’t recognize it anymore.’ Apparently omnipresent in this cruel multiverse is Harper (Jamie Bell), a sinister misogynist, who looks the same in 1992 as he did in the mid-Sixties. Interspliced with this is the murder of Julia Madrigal, (Karen Rodriguez) whose case is being investigated by crime reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura). The pace, punctuation and disruptive power of the action are deliberately disorienting, but the series is held together by Moss’s predictably excellent performance. 

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House

Read


Villager by Tom Cox 
One of the very best and most eclectic writers at work today, Tom Cox’s non-fiction has ranged from his love of the countryside, to music of all kinds, to the lives of his cats (some of whom have had their own Twitter accounts), the powerful draw of folklore and local magic. His 2019 collection of spooky stories, Help The Witch, augured well for his first novel, and Villager does not disappoint. Though the plot is hard to encapsulate in a sentence, its focal point is the role that a little-known musician called RJ McKendree has upon Underhill over a long period of time. But the true appeal of the story is its interweaving of themes and narratives: local personalities, the impact of pylons, the interconnection between past and present, and the relationship between people and the land that, literally, has a voice in the novel. One of the must-read novels of 2022.
 

Listen


‘Ukrainian National Anthem In Dub’ by Jah Wobble & the Ukrainians (feat. Jon Klein)
Trust Jah Wobble – one of the most consistently interesting musicians to emerge from the post-punk demi-monde – to come up with such a creative way to raise funds for Ukraine. And great to hear master guitarist Jon Klein, formerly of Siouxsie and the Banshees, lending his talents to the project. 

Do buy the digital track for £1 or more – the proceeds go to the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, and the AUGB (Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain) Help Ukraine Emergency Appeal (see here also). First-class dub, for the best possible cause.
 
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
@MatthewdAncona

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