According to Pickering, Gaslit is about how collusion in corruption on a personal and national scale can devastate relationships or bind them together. “It’s like a grenade going off,” he says. “John Mitchell’s complicity with Nixon really destroyed his marriage,” just as it destroyed the nation’s belief in the presidency.
Watergate’s intrigue and dysfunction is what often brings artists to retell this saga, according to director Andrew Fleming, whose 1999 film Dick is one of the funniest cinematic Watergate farces. Fleming and writing partner Sheryl Longin combed through all existing Watergate films and books while writing the script. “There were so many ridiculous moments in reality that we had to riff on,” he tells BBC Culture, that a sense of outrageousness was easily written into the script, about two teenyboppers played by Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, who unknowingly become the heart and soul of the Watergate scandal.
The ultimate anti-hero
“We were definitely inspired by the facts,” says Fleming. “Nixon was a tragi-comic character, his downfall came out of his ego and self-delusion.” Both Fleming and Pickering take liberty with the facts surrounding Watergate to heighten the scandal’s drama and absurdity and, in Pickering’s case, a sense of moral degradation. But Harry Shearer, the voice of Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders, among others, in The Simpsons, created his online series Nixon’s the One!, because “the facts are so great on their own”, he says.
Nixon’s the One! depicts Shearer as Nixon and other players acting out dialogue taken directly from Nixon’s publicly available White House tapes – with all their racism, anti-Semitism and paranoia on display. Shearer is a self-proclaimed Nixonphile who’s been parodying the shadowy president since the 1960s. “Nixon is the ultimate Shakespearean anti-hero,” he tells BBC Culture. “He’s a remarkable mix of vices and virtues as a character, which makes artists keep coming back.”
Oliver Stone, the director of the 1995 film Nixon, would agree with Shearer. In an interview, Stone said he was compelled to make a realistic presentation of the “brooding, tortured man” as film critic Roger Ebert describes Stone’s Richard Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins. The filmmaker said he used the Watergate scandal as a MacGuffin of sorts to examine one man’s tragic behaviour.