Fans struggle to recognise Sean Penn in new political thriller

Yes, that’s actually Sean Penn under those prosthetics.


Okay, there are celebrities who are photographed by paparazzi and declared unrecognisable because they, like the rest of us, actually age. Of course you don’t look the same in your 60s as you did in your 30s.

But then there are the actors who disappear so successfully into a role, helped in large part by excellent prosthetic work by talented make-up artists.

You may even be 30 minutes into the first episode of political thriller Gaslit and go, “Hmmm, I thought Sean Penn was in this”, google who he’s supposed to be playing and then actually drop your jaw when you realise he’s been there this whole time.

It’s testament to Gaslit’s high-end production values and triumph in creating an immersive storytelling experience that you don’t even recognise one of the most famous actors on the planet.

Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts, Penn and a cavalcade of supporting talent, is one of those rare shows that hits all the marks, from its propulsive script and taut direction to its considered performances and superb craft.

And that’s all underpinned by a fascinating, under-told story about a woman whose role in a monumental historical scandal was deliberately diminished.

Martha Mitchell (Roberts) was the wife of John Mitchell (Penn), Richard Nixon’s former Attorney-General and a key player in the Watergate break-in which resulted in Nixon’s resignation and a loss of trust in American institutions.

Martha was also someone who liked to talk and was honest and uncanny when she did. She did many media appearances, was well known in Washington and political circles and cultivated a circle of journalists she would often call late at night.

Sean Penn stars as John Mitchell with Julia Roberts starring as Martha Mitchell. Photo / Supplied
Sean Penn stars as John Mitchell with Julia Roberts starring as Martha Mitchell. Photo / Supplied

One of those calls went to a journalist (Allison Tolman) who picked up the phone to a panicked-sounding Martha, who claimed she was being held against her will. The line went dead.

Martha had been holed up in a hotel, detained by security guards at the instruction of her husband and Nixon’s election committee because they figured, correctly, she would work out the connection between the Watergate break-in and the White House.

She would’ve blown the whistle – and many months before the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a whiff of the scandal that would bring down a presidency.

So, they beat her. And they sedated her. And they made her out to be a crazy woman that couldn’t be trusted, plying her with drugs and discrediting a would-be truth-teller. They gaslighted her, and they gaslighted a nation.

Martha Mitchell died a few years later, while the security guard who used physical force against her, former FBI agent Steve King, would eventually be appointed the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic by Donald Trump.

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts attend the premiere of Gaslit. Photo / Getty Images
Sean Penn and Julia Roberts attend the premiere of Gaslit. Photo / Getty Images

Gaslit is a worthy dramatisation of her story and casts a different light on the Watergate scandal than what we’ve previously seen through documentaries, TV shows and movies, most notably All the President’s Men.

Roberts was the perfect choice to play this complex, flawed and unapologetic woman, a person with neuroses and vulnerabilities but also moxie and resilience. She captures Martha Mitchell’s humanity whether she’s revelling in being feted or whether she’s at her lowest.

Created by Robbie Pickering (Mr. Robot, Search Party and One Mississippi), Gaslit is also bolstered by its impressive support ensemble, many of them some of the best known character actors in the business, including Dan Stevens as White House counsel John Dean, Shea Whigham as G Gordon Liddy, Chris Bauer, Chris Messina, Carlos Valdes, Raphael Sbarge, Hamish Linklater and Nat Faxon.

Gaslit does justice to Martha Mitchell’s robbed legacy but it also contextualises her fate within the larger social and cultural forces of the time, vividly recreating the paranoia, power plays and cynicism of the political process.

Even with the sheen of an American TV production, there’s a ballsy honesty to it that Martha Mitchell would’ve loved.

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Written by Politixia

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