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Made For TV:
Watergate at 50 and
Arkansas Elvis


Gaslit, Starz
Impeachment: American Crime Story, FX

listen to audio narration here (10 mins)  

During another summer of congressional hearings, fights over national memory and history itself, Watergate can feel further than five decades passed. In retrospect, Richard Nixon’s story feels both sealed off from our modern squabbles and a little pathetic; the petty cover-up President may actually gain stature next to the riverboat gambler insurrectionist cult tyrant. The Republican Congress that impeached President Bill Clinton for lying about his tryst with Monica Lewinsky feels closer, and not just for the way Special Prosecutor Ken Starr blanched as Clinton parsed the legal definition of sex.

These stories have marbled perfectly into their contemporary TV treatments, almost as if their players know their beats as they go through their real-life actions. As Washington melodramas, they both share high-stakes contours and common stereotypes: the pompous, absent-landlord executive and his over-zealous sycophants, the ambitious intern, the wayward husband, the manipulative co-worker, the over-zealous prosecutor; and a series of government busybodies who made all the mud slide down a perfect slope, as if contingencies simply stepped aside for fate.

Gaslit, the Starz production starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, strikes an acid comic tone that oozes pulp, and Roberts inhabits Martha Mitchell so thoroughly you forget she’s a glamorous celebrity. By most accounts, the Mitchell marriage had passion, and Martha arrived in Washington like so many outsiders giddy with her new status: proximity to power. She gobbled up the attention while misjudging her foes.

For those of you just tuning in, John Mitchell ran Nixon’s 1968 campaign alongside Roger Ailes, Pat Buchanan, and William Safire. Nixon rewarded him with the Attorney General post. During the summer of 1972, immediately after the Watergate break-in, his wife emerged as one of those pure media gifts, the Southern belle loaded for bear. The media cast her as a clown, to the point where people had trouble taking her seriously even when she turned out to be right. (Nixon later told Robert Frost he blamed it all on Martha.) She died of bone cancer in 1976 long before her second act. So fixing the Watergate story around Mitchell, and b-plot characters like Maureen Dean, at first seems wayward, if ambitious. But director Matt Ross gives everything a giddy pace, even obvious scenes hum right along.

At first, Roberts’ performance comes off as brash, but she quickly earns gobs of sympathy next to Penn, who burrows deep into his makeup to portray an arrogant conservative slug. Penn’s tart comic moments make his violent outbursts more disturbing, more the product of a sick, chaotic soul. He chomps on his pipe with relish and squawks from his jowls like a giant smug machine. (The nation’s real top law-and-order official barked “You tell your publisher, tell Katie Graham she's gonna get her tit caught in a big wringer if that's published,” into Carl Bernstein’s phone.) Penn shows shades of Mitchell we don’t want to see but must have been there. Their daughter, Marty, is a forgotten decoy (used to humanize White House counsel John Dean); the couple’s raging drunk-a-thons a ruling class tic. For once in this makeup-crazy era, the arch prosthetics don’t distract; Penn’s avalanching chins pull you further inside Mitchell’s warped psyche.

These productions each sport precision guest turns, like Cobie Smulders as the risible Ann Coulter and Patton Oswalt a ringer for Charles Colson. Shea Wigham breaks out as G. Gordon Liddy, pure psychotic Id. Allison Tolman, who played Molly Solverson in 2014’s first season of Fargo, turns her small role as journalist Winnie McLendon into the picture of homespun empathy (McLendon later wrote Martha’s biography).

Journalist Jimmy Breslin called his Watergate book The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight; Ryan Murphy rewrites the Lewinsky story as a media circus circling a feminist parable. In this late nineties setting, the writing has a sleek ambivalence that keeps turning in unexpected ways, the tone has a wary cynicism, and several key players careen in their roles like gangbusters.

Impeachment: American Crime Story, from the third season of the FX true-crime anthology television series American Crime Story
Bill Clinton took office as a reformed philanderer, a pose he perfected next to Hillary on their famous 60 Minutes appearance right before he came in second in the 1992 New Hampshire primary (”the comeback kid”). Washington elites chuckled at all this: rumors had swirled around Clinton for years about how his presidential ambitions could never tame his libido. His inauguration, complete with Fleetwood Mac singing “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” leapt this hurdle. By then, the Clintons played the banner couple: they had repaired their marriage, and his reform had renewed his resolve to fight for women’s causes.

Predictably, the Republican smog horn erupted on cue, as if summoning Fox News to life. Flooding the zone with bullshit, first came “Travelgate,” an accounting skirmish. Then, White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, and the right plunged in hard. (Clinton’s mother, Virginia, also died during his first term, a detail that tends to get overlooked, like it does here.) Linda Tripp worked for Foster, and soon got pushed out of her West Wing perch. This leaves her genuinely dumbfounded. Her new position as a flack for the Pentagon (supervised by Community’s Jim Rash), rattled her as more banishment than demotion.

Sarah Paulson gives Tripp’s resentments a gangly, arrogant stride. As pure product of Washington’s intense status olympics, Tripp mistakes her job for self-worth, so this bureaucratic death-from-a-thousand cuts chews up her self-respect.

Paulson disappears so far into Tripp’s overcompensating hair and strut that you don’t recognize her. Making yourself unattractive for a role used to count as a stretch, but in both of these unlikely productions the actors push past that conceit into new realms: each lead character goes through shades of likability, sensitivity, and flashing resolve, even as their actions trace arcs of self-destruction.

Paulson’s oppressive hairdo and body-padding work as Tripp’s armor against a disintegrating republic. “Ronald Reagan refused to enter the Oval unless he was wearing a shirt and tie,” she whispers to her children, as if that measured his worth. To conservatives like her, Clinton never had a chance against himself, and working towards his downfall counted as respect for the flag. To her, George Bush Sr.’s thank you notes to supporters explain how much more he deserved high office than his successor. She’s class effrontery made flesh.

When she discovers her new co-worker, Monica Lewinsky, feels banished from the same hallowed elites, she can’t believe her luck that Lewinsky remains entangled with Clinton. Tripp senses her opening: she’s back in the game. Book material!

As the 24-year-old Monica, Beanie Feldstein gains huge authority in this role. She has a great comic smirk, but she’s also a layered, complicated performer. Her Monica has a cloying naïveté that veers between pouty and self-contradictory, she’s smart but unsure of herself and her place in the world, sitting casually on a volcano that’s just out of frame. She cries a lone tear as Clinton wags his finger at the camera, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” It’s all about her, and she can’t fathom how a sitting President would deny their deeply-felt connection.

But even this acting finds its match in Clive Owen as Clinton: he plays against our grandiose ideas about the Arkansas Elvis for an understated dismay. Seated behind his whale of a desk, he’s shot mostly in single wide frames, isolating him in his office, an outsider to DC and himself, puzzling out how this policy wonk and bereaved son feels so powerless. You don’t recognize Owen either, this British star makes Clinton’s peculiar self-absorption upstage his phony hairpiece and nose.

“I CAN’T be Nixon goddamnit!” he tells consultant Dick Morris in the private room off the Oval where he held his trysts.

Both these productions use the usual storytelling crutches: the media montages of outrage, the surging press packs, the slow-moving drones that take in majestic Washington as a giant symbol of an idealized nation. But in this context, with this many flawed-yet-compelling characters moving the stories along, they turn into swift, even meaningful transitions. Murphy devotes an entire episode to Lewinsky’s entrapment in the Pentagon Ritz, her growing resolve against the phony intimidation from Kenneth Starr’s band of Angry White Henchmen. Ultimately, Lewinsky finds a voice to redress them, which reappears suddenly in front of the grand jury when she asks Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks) to leave the room.

To reconsider these impeachment echos during Bennie Thompson’s Select Committee hearings resets the dial. In each of those previous cases, the stakes seemed high, nearly insurmountable, something the nation would need time to recover from. Now we face Trump’s criminal impulse to incite a violent Capitol riot, complete with excrement. Thompson’s committee has surpassed everybody’s expectations of messaging and dramatic testimony. The Republican party’s pattern of wayward narcissism and power lust has long since pushed past the idea that the ends justify the means, that slipperiest political slope. Polls show that many self-respecting people still identify as Republicans, believing the Big Lie, and you wonder how much armor such a person needs at this point.

Mo Dean (Glow’s Betty Gilpin) snags the last word in Gaslit, consoling her baffled husband John Dean (Dan Stevens), the greenest of Nixon sycophants. Arriving home from prison after a shortened sentence, he asks her in all innocence, “Why me… why did I get off so easy compared to all the others?”

“John,” she tells him, “You’re good-looking.”


visit timrileyauthor.com for more clips
more 
Gaslit on STARZ or Hulu
American Crime Story: Impeachment on FX
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, by Jimmy Breslin

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Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary
Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary
Lennon: Man, Myth, Music
Fever: How Rock Transforms Gender


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Playing with Fire: the Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin's Russia by Elizabeth Nelson. Yale University Press, 2022

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