Short Film - The Martha Mitchell Effect

Steve Taylor-Bryant watched the short documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect at Sundance Film Festival...

“A Person's beliefs are initially labelled as delusional, but later turn out to be true” – Harvard Psychologist Brendan Maher when coining the term ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect’

When it comes to Watergate, whistleblowing, the Richard Nixon presidency, and that whole mess of an era in the late sixties and early 1970’s, many people got books, movies, documentaries and spoken about at length. Nixon for sure, Daniel Ellsberg obviously. Journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s roles spawned one of the best films of all time. There are even books on Nixon’s secret tape recordings and the people on them, such as his Attorney General John Mitchell. Until now though there hasn’t been any proficient reading or viewing on one of the most outspoken and divisive characters involved in that whole scandal and that is John Mitchell’s wife Martha. 

In an era when Washington wives were there to be arm candy or hosts but leave the business of opinions to the menfolk, Martha Mitchell stands out for the complete opposite of what Washington expected from a political wife. Martha was upfront and unafraid to get involved in debate and giving her opinion, no matter how forthright and controversial that opinion may be and, whilst she started on the side of America’s 37th President, Richard Milhouse Nixon, she certainly didn’t end up supporting him or his actions. When you research Nixon’s White House recordings you’ll find Martha Mitchell’s name appears over one hundred times; he called John Mitchell his Attorney General whilst calling his wife ‘a hell of a menace’ and, in his televised interview with David Frost, he blames Martha Mitchell for Watergate. He believed that everything that led up to and happened at The Watergate offices would have been successfully hidden from the public and the holders of the law if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell. I knew a lot about Martha Mitchell from my own studies, as this is a period of history that fascinates me, but many people may never have heard of her, or if they have, they may not realise the significance of this fascinating woman.

The film, co-directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy and edited by Alvergue, is a tour de force of archive footage put together in such a way that you could be watching a political thriller. The amount of work, research, and talent involved to pull off a film like The Martha Mitchell Effect is nothing short of astonishing. It covers her early days as a political wife, her work alongside her husband to get Nixon re-elected, and the darkest moments of her life when the White House conspired to have her publicly shamed as an unhealthy alcoholic to make sure her views had no public merit. She had been manhandled by the President’s security and forcibly sedated and kept prisoner in her hotel room for her phone calls, her husband convinced her he had resigned as Attorney General to look after her, a fact that Martha believed until the Nixon tapes proved the conspiracy, she lost her marriage, and despite all that she had accomplished to get the truth known by people, she died ill and alone.

Her husband got a paltry 19 months in prison for his part in Watergate, Nixon himself was pardoned when his Vice President Gerald Ford took office 30 days after Nixon abdicated power, Martha Mitchell got forgotten by many. All she wanted was to be remembered for doing good for her country and this magnificent documentary goes a long way towards that happening. Possibly one of the best films made of a character heavily involved in that particular slice of American history.

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Image - Sundance
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