Julia Roberts is magnetic in Watergate drama Gaslit

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The new political drama Gaslit pulls off a coup: not only does it find a different angle for a story that has been endlessly retold since 1973, it also gives Julia Roberts her most substantial role in two decades. This is the highest profile original offering to appear on the Starzplay streaming platform to date.

A seven-part adaptation of the first season of the Slow Burn podcast, Gaslit takes on the Watergate scandal. Roberts plays Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s former attorney-general, John Mitchell. Her easy charm and irrepressible forthrightness made her a valuable asset to the Republicans when it came to fundraising, but also a liability when she divulged political hearsay to the press or publicly opposed the party line on matters such as the Vietnam war. “I will say how I feel and if that doesn’t conform to the president’s message, so be it,” she boasts to a journalist.

All this candour is a cause of concern for John, played here by Sean Penn under a mass of prosthetics (the sad eyes are the only giveaway). As the head of the Committee to Re-elect the President it’s his responsibility to concoct a covert scheme to drag the Democrats through the mud.

He attempts to assemble a crack team for political black ops but winds up with a bunch of crackpots, led by unhinged onetime FBI agent Gordon Liddy (an excellent Shea Whigham). A man who claims not to feel “human nerves”, he quickly proves himself to be an amateurish overgrown boy scout when he and his cadre botch the Watergate raid.

Drastic measures are soon taken to prevent Martha, the so-called “Mouth of the South”, from learning and leaking the truth about the break-in. While on holiday in California, she is forcibly sequestered in her hotel by a bullying security detail. A sequence of distressing scenes shows how she is beaten, drugged and made to believe that she’s delusional.

Roberts is magnetic as the gossipmonger turned voice of dissent. But she seems sidelined at times in the first episodes, as Gaslit instead opts to follow the venality (bordering on farcical stupidity) at the heart of the scandal.

A major narrative strand follows one of John Mitchell’s underlings, the yuppieish White House counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens), an apparently good-natured man readily seduced and corrupted by his tangential links to power. Too much time is devoted to him and his wife Maureen (Betty Gilpin) at the expense of a deeper exploration of the Mitchell marriage.

That said, Maureen does get the best line of the show so far. At a Republican soirée she meets some of Nixon’s top men. “Everyone is so evil here, I’m having so much fun,” she laughs. Watching this slick, captivating look at extreme political self-preservation and folly, you can see exactly what she means.

★★★★☆

On Starzplay from April 24; new episodes released weekly

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