June 17, 2022, marked the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the fallout of which would eventually lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Nixon and his tricksters were held to account in the end, largely thanks to brave insiders such as Alexander Butterfield, who disclosed the existence of the secret White House taping system, as well as Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell.
Martha Mitchell blew the whistle on the Nixon machine of falsehoods, not only alienating Mitchell from her husband but also drawing the public wrath of the administration’s dirty tricks enterprise. She was called all manner of unsavory names and accused of being a traitor—and this was before the era of social media.
The new Netflix documentary, “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” presents archival footage of this brave woman who was ultimately proved correct and righteous.
“I think it’s a lot easier to gaslight women than it has [been] men, certainly if men are in power— which has been typically the situation, and certainly fifty years ago,” said co-director Anne Alvergue. “Not only does the film present the sort of gaslighting campaign vis-a-vis Nixon and [H.R.] Haldeman, but also through the way that mostly male anchors were kind of casting and framing Martha in the press.
“Really she was demonized and almost made to be seen as the vilain, [combined with] the problem of her marriage. Somehow it was John Mitchell who became the ‘good guy at the beginning.”
So many of the parties who were there during the Watergate scandal have passed on, including Martha Mitchell, but Alvergue and co-director Debra McClutchy combed through the archives to bring to light this unique subchapter of the entire affair.
[Debra McClutchy is filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. Recent credits include co-producer of “The Booksellers,” a documentary about the New York rare book world. She’s also a senior creative producer at Oscilloscope Laboratories]
“There really hasn’t been a lot of stories about Martha. There had never been a documentary,” Alvergue said, “and we started realizing how much footage there was of her, particularly in the news.
“We knew we had a great story on our hands because she was a hidden figure in history and the story hadn’t been told.”
Co-director McClutchy said she hopes that the documentary debuting on Netflix this weekend will commence a conversation by people on opposite ends of the political spectrum, particularly as the Jan. 6 hearings continue to be a divisive spectacle and a horrifying echo of what happened following Watergate.
“Martha is such a compelling character, and it’s such a fascinating story that I think so many people will be interested in learning about her and the themes that we explore,” McClutchy said. “Maybe it will help spark a dialogue between people who have been having trouble having a dialogue about politics and some of these themes that we explore in the film.”
“I hope that people will be reminded to believe women,” added Alvergue. “Don’t dismiss the outliers just because they may just know something.
“Treating your opponents as existential threats, and dehumanizing them as a way to discredit them in public, is an old political tactic that is being used today, or at least [by] our previous administration. And it’s typically women who take the fall.”
[Anne Alvergue is a documentary filmmaker and editor. Her short films have screened internationally at film festivals. Her editing credits include “Love, Gilda”; “Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn” “and My Kid Could Paint That,” among others.]
Alvergue and McClutchy took the project to Netflix fairly early on in the developmental process. The executive they pitched was also a woman, who was excited about their story.
“They bought it from a trailer and no budget,” Alvergue said. “We were very clear what the story was and how we wanted to tell it. And we just took it from there. We got very lucky.”
Although the documentary packs in quite a lot into its limited running time, there was nonetheless much that had to be left out. The filmmakers tease that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward spoke with Martha Mitchell during the Watergate scandal, but no footage of their meeting exists.
“It was really [more] about Bob Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein than it was about Martha,” Alvergue said of the anecdote. “But it’s a great story that would have been really amazing to include.”
Despite touring for the new documentary in Washington as the January 6th hearings are ongoing, the filmmakers say no one in Congress has reached out to them to screen the film. And given the tenor of the current hearings, the need to ensure that something like Watergate doesn’t reoccur is paramount.
“We were at a festival last weekend and met this editor of Nixon’s autobiography,” Alvergue said, adding that the filmmakers discussed with that editor what would happen if the Watergate events occurred in the post-truth era in which we find ourselves now. “Would they have gotten more [jail] time? No, they wouldn’t have gotten any time.”
Asked if the public has learned anything in the half-century between Watergate and the January 6th, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol, McClutchy sounded a pessimistic note.
“Martha says herself [in the film] that she’s hoping the politicians will become honest again,” she said, “and unfortunately they really haven’t, in so many ways.
“We’re in a really dire situation at the moment. So I’m not sure that we’ve learned enough, if anything.”
“I don’t think we’ve learned anything,” added Alvergue with a dark laugh.
However, the filmmakers believe that one of the biggest lessons of Watergate is that Americans began to question the limits of the power of those who represent them.
“There is a certain amount of healthy skepticism of the powers that be,” Alvergue said. “At least now the American public [does] question what is put forth in front of us a ‘fact.’”
The filmmakers hope that viewers of “The Martha Mitchell Effect” learn a small bit of unknown American history, as well as hopefully be intrigued for thirty minutes at Martha Mitchell’s significant bravery.
“Also, the cost of speaking out,” Alvergue said of Mitchell’s decision to go against not just the Nixon administration but her own husband, the attorney general. “What happens when soft power comes up against a president? What are the personal costs?”
“The Martha Mitchell Effect” went live on Netflix on June 17th