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‘Gaslit’ Review: Julia Roberts’ Fiery Watergate Drama Sorts a Hard Truth from Many Lies

Robbie Pickering's Starz series connects past and present in recognizing the danger of dumb, immoral men given the power to shape history.

Gaslit Julia Roberts Starz series

Julia Roberts in “Gaslit”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

“Malum in se.”

In “Gaslit,” as explained by G. Gordon Liddy (a wild-eyed, deeply fragile, yet powerfully mustachioed Shea Whigham), Malum in se is a Latin phrase that means “an act of evil in and of itself” — something easily recognized as wrong, no matter the framework. It works in opposition to “Malum prohibitum,” which speaks to an act that violates the laws of man. Maybe it’s not obviously illegal, but society still deems it as such. Liddy, a loyal soldier of President Richard M. Nixon, believes that the leaders who wrote these laws were thus right and good; that, as the strongest men, they had the right to shape history as they see fit; that everyone else should follow their will, for they were the purest and most righteous among us.

Sound familiar? Even before accusations of fascism were being hurled across Twitter, they were being shouted at bars, during protests, and anywhere else Americans felt it was fair to speak out against Nixon. But tossing an insult and appreciating the meaning of that insult are two different things. In “Gaslit,” Judy Hoback (Marin Ireland) gets it.

“[Liddy] thought he was some sort of crusader on a holy mission,” one of Watergate’s early whistleblowers says. “But if every evil is justified because it’s done in the pursuit of some sacred truth, than laws don’t matter any more, right? People don’t even matter. How can society function like that? How can people live together without a shared understanding of right and wrong?”

“Gaslit” asks these very questions, and the answers are as unsettling as audiences have come to expect. In revisiting the 1972 Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, showrunner Robbie Pickering connects the rot of the Republican party from Nixon to now, arguing that people like Liddy, like Nixon, like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and more, have long been fighting for an America that only adheres to what they deem right or wrong; that people in power shape narratives to their advantage, and even when the people they’re supposed to be serving see through those stories, there’s precious little they can do about it. “Post-truth” may been named the Word of the Year in 2016, but “Gaslit” contends we’ve been living in an ahistorical era for decades now, if not much, much longer.

Gaslit Starz series Shea Whigham

Shea Whigham in “Gaslit”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

For some, such contentions may evoke a deafening, “No shit!” But “Gaslit,” based on Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, doesn’t rest its entire eight-episode arc on lessons. There’s style to spare, along with comedy dark enough to run parallel with the insidious portrait of subjects like Liddy. (He’s equal parts dangerous and dumb, a caustic combination when handed any kind of power.) The Starz limited series pivots around Martha and John Mitchell (Julia Roberts and a well-latexed Sean Penn), a couple of 16 years who alternate between love-making and fist-fights with disturbing speed. John is a man in love with two masters. On the one hand, he’s the Attorney General of the United States, the chairman of the Committee to Reelect the President, and one of Nixon’s closest friends, if not his best friend. He’s as devoted to his president as he is enraptured by his wife, but Martha’s penchant for public speaking — frank, honest, and forthright to such an extent that she’ll ring up a reporter in the middle of the night — leads to repeated conflicts for John and the Republican party.

Turns out a vocal woman with inside information doesn’t sit well with a group that prioritizes secrecy to such an extent they even lie to each other. Enter John Dean (Dan Stevens), a young lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office and a megalomaniac so status-obsessed he describes his car to the valet as “a Dijon Porsche.” While his internal alarm bells start going off when Mitchell asks him to set up an “espionage” unit within CREEP (their unquestioned nickname for the Committee to Reelect the President), all it takes is a hint that Nixon himself asked for John Dean for the craven young attorney to fall in line.

Dean is an alluring embodiment of someone gullible enough to believe lies told to him and weak enough to invest in lies he tells himself. His romance with Mo, a liberal flight attendant who admires (and mirrors) Martha Mitchell’s outspokenness, creates another fictitious reality in which she sees enough good in him to outweigh the bad. As written by Pickering (and his writing team) and performed by Stevens and Gilpin, John and Mo’s relationship is built on the little lies we’ll tell ourselves that, if left standing too long, can balloon into a life we never thought possible. It would be easy to say Mo should know better than to get in bed with Dean, but “Gaslit” is shrewd in depicting how and when she sees him. Plus, Stevens is 10 pounds of charm in a five-pound bag, even when he’s finding empathy within a piece of shit who’s not quite capable of change.

Gaslit Starz series Watergate Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens in “Gaslit”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

Perhaps, so far in this review, I have not emphasized strongly enough how easy it is to embrace “Gaslit.” Period dramas about major historical moments can often sound like homework. Some feel like it, too, while others over-correct to a disastrous degree. But “Gaslit” finds a balanced, polished middle-ground. Director Matt Ross (“Captain Fantastic”) and D.P. Larkin Seiple (“Everything, Everywhere, All at Once”) keep their cast well-lit, their environments in shadows, and backdrops bathed in black. Their framings are thoughtful without stealing focus, the footage lets props, costumes, and period-appropriate lighting convey the time period (rather than pretend you’re watching on an ugly ’70s era TV set), and appropriate attention is paid to Whigham’s crazed eyes and magnificent mustache.

His performance, alternating between brazenly rabid and feigning propriety, defines the series, though he’s not alone. Penn slithers inside his bald cap and padded body suit with a physical conviction lacking in so many latex-covered performances. Even his manner of speech, spitting curse words while clenching his wooden pipe, befits the boil of a man that John Mitchell becomes in “Gaslit.” But when he plays nice with Martha, or feigns honesty, it’s believable. Penn manages to bring life to his makeup-constructed character, proving just as familial as Roberts does when Martha teacher her daughter how to pop her cheeks with blush. The “Homecoming” star — reunited with executive producer Sam Esmail — again plays a woman turned upside down by the world around her, and again she excels at balancing and unbalancing her besieged truth-teller.

Casting directors Jeanne McCarthy and Nicole Abellera Hallman fill the call sheet with great performers from the top down — Allison Tolman, Hamish Linklater, Darby Camp, Chris Messina, Amy Landecker, Bill Duke, and Patton Oswalt are just a few supporting stars you’ll be happy to see — and they sport a shared sense of humor that disarms with its free-flowing vulgarities. (Early on, after Martha makes a joke, I’ll never forget the way John/Penn says, “Are you implying that the First Lady isn’t blowing her husband enough?”) All together, through the seven episodes made available for critics, “Gaslit” is a handsome limited series about a particularly ugly American sensibility. Its warning may be old news, but its means of communicating its point proves compelling. Even if you’ve been screaming about fascism’s rise since long before its recognized resurgence, it’s still been 50 years since Watergate, and our shared understanding of right and wrong remains disconcertingly askew.

Grade: B+

“Gaslit” premieres Sunday, April 24 on Starz. New episodes will be released weekly.

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