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The Martha Mitchell Effect review: Gaslighting in Washington

This gripping documentary follows Martha Mitchell, who was central to exposing the Watergate scandal despite Nixon’s attempts to silence her

A still from 'The Martha Mitchell Effect'
A still from 'The Martha Mitchell Effect'

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When a journalist asks Martha Mitchell whether the country had put Watergate behind them, she responds in her Arkansas twang, “I think it's the greatest thing that’s ever happened to our country, it’s teaching our politicians to be straight and not crooked.” Impeccably turned out, in her baby blue skirt suit, white-framed cat eye sunglasses and perfectly coiffed hair, Martha Mitchell seemed like any other politician’s wife in the 1960s. However, in its 40 minute run time, The Martha Mitchell Effect shows that Mitchell was actually more indispensable in revealing the truth about the Watergate break-in than journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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Martha Mitchell was married to John Mitchell, attorney general of the US and close friend of President Nixon. The film transports us back to the 1960s with footage of Martha during television interviews accompanied by cheerful swing music. Initially, the Nixon administration enjoyed the attention she was bringing the Republican Party so they would tolerate that she was outspoken about politics.

However, with retrospective voiceovers from journalists, politicians and White House aides, the documentary traces how the administration, including her own husband, started to antagonise her. When the news about their botched operation to wiretap and steal documents from the Democratic Party’s headquarters at Watergate broke, the Nixon administration was determined to keep the information from Martha. At the time she was in California talking to voters as part of Nixon’s ‘Committee for the to Re-Election of the President’. Her bodyguards didn't let her leave her room for a week, gave her a tranquilizer injection and ripped a phone out of a wall when she tried to talk to a reporter. After the story died down a bit, Martha’s husband John Mitchell resigned, discrediting her by saying that his wife was suffering from mental illness and that he was leaving politics to take care of her.

Over the next two years, she made the difficult choice of being estranged from her husband to give journalists access to documents critical to exposing the administration’s cover up attempts. Martha’s work behind the scenes was crucial to Nixon resigning in 1974, but she is barely ever recognised in history. Instead, her legacy lives on in a psychological term, the ‘Martha Mitchell effect’ that refers to when a patient is wrongfully diagnosed as being delusional about events that are actually true.

The film shows news anchors smirking in disbelief when recounting her experience of being held hostage by her bodyguards and interviewers implying that she was exaggerating Nixon’s complicity in the break-in. The Nixon administration had even tried to put Martha in a mental institution twice. Only when she died in 1976, did the gaslighting end, with mourners sending a sign made of white chrysanthemums for her funeral that spelled out ‘Martha Was Right’

The Martha Mitchell Effect is streaming on Netflix

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