Skip to main content

That’s a surprising amount of controversy for a gin and lemonade.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
(2020)

(SPOILERS) If The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like the kind of fare that might once have been prestige Oscar bait, that’s probably because it was intended to be. Doubtless accompanied by numerous speeches about how its subject matter is more relevant than ever. And maybe Paramount and DreamWorks, after more than a decade of development hell, hoped it still had a shot. Maybe, in a year with as little competition as this, it does. The picture finished up on Netflix, of course, which is a good fit for Aaron Sorkin’s lightweight but engaging approach. There’s nothing very much that goes beyond a practised eye for dramatically repurposed biographical fare, as you’d expect from the writer/adaptor of The Social Network, Moneyball and most recently Molly’s Game.

Sorkin's also, of course, the brilliant mind behind The West Wing, which means his key gift is for politically vapid idealism, Waltons Mountain by way of Capitol Hill, and that kind of approach – cue stirring chords on the soundtrack affirming our collective values – is very visible in Chicago 7. Sorkin is very much one for finding the cherished kernel in material, not for propounding its aptness to cynicism. He’s also not a virtuoso director. Which is fine, few screenwriters are, and his fare is, at least, very writerly rather than stylistically reliant. It does mean, however, that there’s little finesse here, that dialogue and performance are everything and period atmosphere is very much secondary. This is in the John Lee Hancock school of auteurish acumen.

On the plus side, that means we dodged instigator of the project Spielberg’s patented brand of syrup; it’s easy to observe how the film was designed with such rudimentary manipulations in mind, although one might equally attest that Sorkin and Spielberg’s brands are naturally synergistic. The berg has of course, been churning out vanilla, accolade-seeking biographical fare ever since the mid-80s, and it was only a writers’ strike that put the kibosh on this (his next film was the career high of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His version would tentatively have featured Sacha Baron Cohen (when he was actually the correct age for the part of Abbie Hoffman), Will Smith as Bobby Seale and Heath Ledger as Tom Hayden. Subsequently, various replacement directors were mooted, including Paul Greengrass – ideal for fashioning an “authentic” piece of Hollywood whitewashing/fabrication thanks to his verité style – and Ben Stiller, probably the more interesting suggestion, although I don’t know how his larger-than-life tendencies would have fitted with the content.

Particularly since that content isn’t especially taxing. Because the most interesting tack Sorkin could have taken, rather than reinforcing – as, let’s face it, Hollywood is wont to do – our impressions of that decade, so extolling of it as a solitary shining beacon, when hope was in the ascendant and change truly was possible, would have been to dig in to an era of Tavistock-esque social engineering. Mark Devlin recently broached the protest movement in his Lennon at 80 podcast, whereby the former Beatle’s interaction with such revolutionary luminaries as Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and popular beat paedophile Allen Ginsburg was discussed. Devlin and guest Matt Sergiou consider the possibility, mooted by many over the years, that certain elements of the peace movement represented controlled opposition, designed to douse any hope that its aims might land with normies. This derailing was achieved through grand off-putting theatrical gestures and statements, so making the entire movement look idiotic and out there, and distancing it from any broader meeting of empathy.

Hayden: My problem is that for the next fifty years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.

Devlin cites the infamous example of the plan to levitate the Pentagon, via Ginsberg leading a crowd in Tibetan chanting (there’s a Ginsberg cameo in the movie, played by Alan Metoskie, repeating “Om” outside a police station). And in fairness to Sorkin, the general gist of this is addressed in the movie, although without any agenda behind it beyond personal glorification; Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, as usual giving a performance where he appears to have just soiled himself – if ever there’s a big screen Some Mothers Do 'Av Em, he’s a shoe-in) shows animosity towards Hoffman’s outlook at an early stage, warning “the very last thing he wants is for the war to end”. Hayden thinks Hoffman is all about brand Hoffman. Sorkin being Sorkin, he indulges a couple of narrative flips in this regard, shallow Abbie revealed to care deeply (asked the price to call off the revolution, he replies “My life” – you can see the actual footage of this, which is inevitably less calculated). He’s also given good reason for his jestering (that when you have no money, he is free publicity). Earnest and buttoned-down Hayden meanwhile is accused of inciting the crowd to violence before it’s revealed that isn’t what he meant.

The main thing to note with these performances is that Redmayne, bereft of ticks and quirks, is left looking a little at sea. As for the general Cohen praise, I found him distracting in his age-inappropriateness (a decade and a half older than his subject is Warren Beatty territory; he comes across – much more than Strong, also in his 40s – like an antiquated hipster). Additionally, I’m not entirely convinced he’s much of a dramatic actor. He can do the quips and the stand-up, but he needs an extra dimension, and the overall impression is more of a caricature than a character. Of course, maybe it's neither here nor there that Cohen isn't very good; what's significant is that he's here in the first place. Which it brings us to...

As for the third man here, Sorkin deals Jerry Rubin rather short shrift. We lucked in when boorish oaf Seth Rogen dropped out and method-head Jeremy Strong replaced him, but you can see the inveterate stoner, incoherent mumblefuck doting over an FBI undercover agent being more tailored to Rogen. Indeed, Sorkin’s approach is likely about attempting to delineate characters sufficiently; with Hayden and Hoffman designated the dramatic tension, pulling for the same thing but from polar positions, there’s little room for a third wheel. Which means Sorkin ends up inventing several really phoney scenes, such as Rubin being smitten with (also Succession star) Caitlin FitzGerald’s FBI gal, or the ridiculously contrived gallantry in saving a buxom protest chick from rape (that he somehow gets off for “assaulting someone who was assaulting someonemight be seen as leading into the next paragraph).

As Devlin reports it, Jon Weiner’s book Come Together details the claims of Lennon’s immigration attorney Leon Wildes (as told by an unnamed source who provided supporting documentation) that Jerry was a CIA Plant tasked with baiting Lennon in order to get damning information on his Vietnam activism. Rubin himself admitted “John considered the possibility that I was a CIA agent”. Certainly, Rubin’s transformation into a stockbroker in the 1980s (very The Big Chill) doesn’t exactly suggest an unassailable ethos (in contrast, Hayden, who married Jane Fonda for a spell, sandwiched between Vadim and Ted Turner – there’s a very definite “progression” for Hanoi Jane there – seems exactly the guy who would become a state senator). Rubin’s alleged activities don’t necessarily reflect on Hoffman, of course; his comments rather reinforce the suspicions threaded together by the likes of Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, suggesting the rise of the hippie movement was anything but organic: “There were all these activists, you know, Berkeley radicals, White Panthers … all trying to stop the war and change things for the better. Then we got flooded with all these ‘flower children’ who were into drugs and sex. Where the hell did the hippies come from?!

If the most interesting threads of the peace movement aren’t found in the movie, Sorkin manages to include some distractingly thudding ones to make up for it. The treatment of David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is particularly egregious. Dellinger was a conscientious objector during WWII, and Sorkin, seemingly intent on showing just how conservative he is in his liberalism, is bent on making it clear this was absolutely unacceptable. Most innocuously when defence lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance playing Mark Rylance as usual; he does it very well, of course) tells him he’ll have to talk to him about that. Most offensively when Dellinger objects to the judge in court and is restrained; the staunch pacifist is brought to violence, punching a marshal. You see? You see how wrong he was to have such values? It’s a sickeningly facile moment.

Other embellishments are less distasteful. Ironically for a movie about radicals, it’s in the staid manoeuvres of court procedure – and not even especially the wiseacre antics of Jerry and Abbie before the court – that the picture comes alive. This is Sorkin’s bread and butter as a writer. Thus lead prosecutor Richard Schultz becomes a more sympathetic figure; just casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt is liable to do that, but he’s granted the insight that however smelly these reprobates are, they are not guilty of the charges presented against them. The climactic closing statement by Hayden, where he confounds the judge’s faith that he will go far by reading out a list of 4,752 troops who have died in Vietnam since the trial began is a neat fist-pumping capper to the proceedings, but is completely invented.

The rest of the cast are also very good. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, previously best known as the villain in Aquaman, makes the most of the showstopper role of Bobby Seale, bereft of an attorney and continually silenced by the judge. Frank Langella has easily the juiciest part as Julius Hoffman “a judge who’s been handing down rulings from the bench that would have been considered wrong in Honduras”. Michael Keaton also makes the most of a cameo as former attorney general Ramsey Clarke, one of the few who can contradict the judge with authority (“The President isn’t a client of the attorney general” he instructs of concerns over breaking attorney-client privilege). As to his investigation’s conclusion that “the riots were started by the Chicago Police Department” well it simply goes to show that honesty about such matters is an evergreen issue, what with Soros-funded BLM and ANTIFA.

Rubin famously said “this is the Academy Awards of protests as far as I’m concerned” – although Sorkin gives that line to someone else, since it’s a bit too sharp for his Jerry – but I’m not sure how much this will be troubling the real deal. Probably a nod for Langella, maybe Abdul-Mateen II, maybe for Original Screenplay, which admittedly has some choice dialogue (“You think it possible there were seven demonstrators in Chicago last summer leading ten thousand undercover cops in protest?”) And it’s also a good time to be reminded of first principles, in a year when the scoffing of such notions is coming back to bite everyone, that “These people had a plan, and a plan involving two or more people is a conspiracy”.




Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.