“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate,” Richard Nixon once said.
He meant she was a pain in the ass, distracting his attorney general during a time of crisis and otherwise getting in the way. But his words were truer than he knew.
“The Martha Mitchell Effect” seeks to put the loudest, brashest Cabinet wife back where she belongs — right at the center of American history. Streaming now on Netflix, the documentary takes a woman accused of being boozy and delusional and shows us an imploding presidency through her eyes.
For directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, it’s more than a reclamation project or another tribute conveniently timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the burglaries at the Watergate hotel. They sort through the proof that was there all along, if anyone cared to listen. And in 40 minutes of archival footage, they show that politics is always personal.
“It’s obviously a very topical tale. It has a lot of parallels to today and corruption at the highest level,” Alvergue said. “But, in essence, it’s also a love story.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to our Political Theater podcast.
Q: I have a bookshelf of Watergate-related titles, and it’s mostly filled with men. Why have people forgotten about Martha Mitchell?
AA: Martha Mitchell was a Cabinet wife in Nixon’s first administration. She was married to John Mitchell, who was Nixon’s attorney general and some would say his second-in-command. She was an outsider to Washington society; she hailed from Arkansas; and she didn’t quite fit in — she was too loud and brash for Washington women’s society, and she wasn’t taken seriously by the men.
But she was taken seriously by the press, or at least she became quite friendly with them. It’s hard to fathom today how popular she was. No one can name a Cabinet wife, I think now in the Biden administration. But polls taken at the time showed she was as popular as Jackie O. She really did become a household name.
Q: At first she was a true believer in Nixon. But when she realized something fishy was happening with Watergate, she went straight to the press, as she liked to do. She said the FBI was trying to silence her by holding her hostage.
AA: She went from being sort of an amusing Cabinet wife to being dismissed and discounted by the Nixon administration, and then ultimately by the press, as someone who was sick and someone who was an alcoholic and a pill popper. She became a joke, unfortunately — until the end, when she did have a brief honeymoon, when people realized that she was telling the truth all along.
Q: People called her delusional, but it turns out she was right. Psychologists even named a phenomenon after her, one you borrowed for your film title. After all that, how do you go about reconstructing her story?
DM: We knew from the get-go that we wanted this to be archive driven. We wanted it to be immersed in that time period, and we wanted it to be through Martha's voice as much as possible.
So we did research at the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif. That was our primary source of footage, and we had an amazing archivist who helped us out there, Ryan Pettigrew. Both Anne and I went out there on separate trips, pre-pandemic, and really dug through the materials and found a treasure trove.
And then, of course, there’s all the Super 8 footage that H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had shot, which is really beautiful and amazing to have access to.
Q: We’re still seeing archival documentaries come out about the Nixon era partly because everybody was always taping one another, secretly or not.
AA: It’s important to remember that Nixon’s Cabinet was quite young, and they were filming each other. They really do feel like revealing home movies, and they were so happy and so excited to be there. In telling Nixon’s side of the story, we had all of that great observational footage, but Martha’s was a little bit harder because we had to rely on the news footage.
Q: Your release date is tied to the 50th anniversary this month of the arrests at the Watergate hotel. But it’s also eerie to watch this as the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection holds its televised hearings.
AA: We keep thinking, “Oh, this is happening, and there’s this parallel and this parallel.” It’s mind-blowing. When you look back at Watergate and what Nixon and his men did, it feels like child’s play in comparison. I don’t think that diminishes the magnitude of Watergate at that time. It felt like Watergate was the first time the public started to really question the presidency, and we’re still going through it, just on a higher level.
Q: I don’t like to compare projects, but Starz has this new limited series “Gaslit,” where a certain famous movie star is playing Martha Mitchell. How do you compete with Julia Roberts?
AA: It’s fun for us to watch it because we’re seeing a fictional version play out in scenes we couldn’t visualize just because we didn’t have the archival footage. Still, it is a lot more about John Dean and G. Gordon Liddy than it is about Martha Mitchell.
DM: It goes off on many other tangents besides Martha, and ours homes in on her. When you see the real Martha, there’s no one that can really portray her.
Q: Martha Mitchell died just a couple of years after Nixon's resignation, and I can't help but think that played into some of the historical neglect of her voice. But it was also about power and who controls the narrative. What else can we learn from it?
AA: It’s obviously a very topical tale. It has a lot of parallels to today and corruption at the highest level. But, in essence, it’s also a love story and a love triangle, with Nixon and Martha sort of vying for John Mitchell’s attention.
And I think that was the motivation for Martha speaking out — not only because she wanted to tell the truth and she felt like she had been maligned, but because she had information and wanted to protect John. She foresaw that he was going to take the fall for Nixon, and whether or not he knew it at the time, he ultimately chose Nixon, and he paid a price. I think it’s important to understand the personal fallout of these larger scandals.