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Gaslit and Watergate: The Lingering Lure of a 1972 Conspiracy

According to Pickering, Gaslit deals with how collusion in corruption on a personal and national scale can devastate or bind relationships. “It’s like a grenade exploding,” he says. “John Mitchell’s complicity with Nixon really destroyed his marriage,” just as it destroyed the nation’s faith in the presidency.

The intrigue and dysfunction of Watergate is what often drives artists to tell this saga, according to director Andrew Fleming, whose 1999 film Dick is one of Watergate’s funniest cinematic pranks. Fleming and his writing partner Sheryl Longin combed through all of the existing Watergate films and books while penning the screenplay. “There were so many ridiculous real-life moments that we had to riff on,” he told BBC Culture that a sense of overkill 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 tragicomic character, his downfall came from his ego and his delusion.” Fleming and Pickering take liberties with the facts surrounding Watergate to heighten the drama and absurdity of the scandal and, in Pickering’s case, a sense of moral degradation. But Harry Shearer, the voice of Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders and others on The Simpsons, created his online series Nixon’s the One!, because “the facts are so big in themselves,” he says.

Nixon is the only one! depicts Shearer as Nixon and other players playing dialogue pulled straight from Nixon’s publicly available White House tapes – with all of their racism, anti-Semitism and paranoia on display. Shearer is a self-described nixonphile who has parodied the shadowy president since the 1960s. “Nixon is the ultimate Shakespearean anti-hero,” he told BBC Culture. “He’s a remarkable blend of vices and virtues as a character, which keeps performers coming back for more.”

Oliver Stone, the director of the 1995 Nixon film, would agree with Shearer. In an interview, Stone said he was compelled to deliver a realistic portrayal of the “brooding, tortured man” as film critic Roger Ebert portrayed Stone’s Richard Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins. The filmmaker said he used the Watergate scandal as a MacGuffin in a way to examine the tragic behavior of a man.

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