Nominated for Best Short Film at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, The Martha Mitchell Effect (Netflix) examines the period of time when the wife of President Nixon’s attorney general and campaign manager refused to stay silent. Instead, Martha Mitchell became a media figure in her own right and ultimately one of the first people to publicly pin the Watergate scandal on the president and his inner circle. A lot of good that did her.
THE MARTHA MITCHELL EFFECT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected the 37th president of the United States, Margaret Mitchell came to Washington with her husband John N. Mitchell, a former law partner of Nixon’s who, having run his successful campaign, the president had just named his Attorney General. But while the Mitchells moved into the Watergate Complex and beltway society, Martha had no use for the usual duties and decorum of a “cabinet wife.” Instead, she made expressive quotes to the media, and cultivated late-night telephone relationships with journalists and favored newspapers. She became known as “Martha the Mouth,” or the “Mouth of the South,” after her upbringing in Pine Bluff, Ark., and she didn’t like that state’s senator one bit. “I’ve always thought that Mr. William Fulbright – if you wanna call him that,” she tells a television host in The Martha Mitchell Effect, “I have an awful time calling him that. He’s either half-bright – he’s now down to quarter-bright.”
John Dean, former White House counsel, says the White House at first enjoyed the attention Mitchell got – “She was good, she was on message” – even if Nixon was known to dislike “loud women.” And in a doggedly anti-press administration, Mitchell saw her role as one of openness, to which papers and pop media responded. Longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas calls her arrival in Washington a “bombshell,” and Mitchell appears in a sketch on a 1971 episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In alongside Lily Tomlin. But when Thomas printed Mitchell’s thoughts on the Vietnam War (“It stinks”), trouble began. No one could be seen to buck the GOP party line. And certainly not a woman. Martha Mitchell was banned from Air Force One.
By June 1972 and the rise of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, or “CREEP”), Mitchell was a target for a muzzle, which meant she was bundled off to a California fund-raiser on the night of the Watergate break-ins. The Martha Mitchell Effect details how she was left behind with his security detail as John Mitchell returned to Washington, how she was forbidden to speak with the media, how she was administered tranquilizers. And on his White House tapes, Nixon says “If it hadn’t have been for Martha Mitchell, John wouldn’t have let this Watergate thing get out of hand.” It would take more of Mitchell’s trademark candor to turn the tables on Nixon, his cronies, her (soon to be estranged) husband, and her public silencing.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Martha Mitchell co-director and editor Anne Alvergue was also the editor for Love, Gilda (2018), a tender look back at the groundbreaking comedian and actress. And Julia Roberts played Martha Mitchell, alongside Sean Penn as her husband John N. Mitchell, in the recent Starz miniseries Gaslit.
Performance Worth Watching: Mitchell’s persona was part talky Southern auntie, part savvy Washington society insider, and she combined it with a knack for newsmaking and precision comic timing. Transplant her in the present, and Mitchell would be a favorite of the cable news cycle as well as something like The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. She’d certainly be a fixture on The New Hollywood Squares, if that was still a thing.
Memorable Dialogue: “Washington,” CBS journalist Connie Chung says of the nation’s capital during the Nixon era, “was a male-dominated city. It was run by white men at the White House, and men at every single cabinet level.” The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn concurs. “Women who were part of the Washington social scene were hostesses. Women went into the other room and had coffee while the men talked about important things. But Martha Mitchell wasn’t playing the Washington game.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: There’s been no shortage of content surrounding the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate break-ins. John Dean was featured extensively in the CNN documentary series Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal, and Martha Mitchell’s role in it all was dramatized in the aforementioned Starz miniseries. (In the wake of his recent passing, it’s also important to mention Secret Honor, Robert Altman’s 1984 historical drama with Phillip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon.) What’s refreshing about The Martha Mitchell Effect is how Watergate, and the machinations of the president and his confidants, occurs almost in the abstract. Its point about how those forces combined to silence her is clear, and it upholds its subject as a woman who would not submit. But it works well within its brief runtime to do this, weaving the social mores and blanket chauvinism of the era into a narrative that percolates with Martha Mitchell’s effusive personality and flair for soundbite heroics. She’s seen responding publicly about Nixon’s role in Watergate (“This man knew what was going on”), which is transposed against the arrogant murmurs and closed-door decisions on the president’s incriminating White House recordings. Bits and pieces of vintage footage stream across the screen in an occasionally dream-like way, a sense nurtured by the doc’s brooding soundtrack; throughout, Mitchell appears on talk shows, bright and well-dressed and fully-coiffed, to stand up for herself against the strictures of the era. The Martha Mitchell Effect doesn’t need to tell the whole Watergate story. It doesn’t even need to tell Mitchell’s whole story. But the picture it does present is a powerful part of the bigger moment.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Though brief, The Martha Mitchell Effect is a powerful, at times illusory document of a woman who refused to abide by the status quo of her era.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges