For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…
The Trial of the Chicago 7
[5 nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen)]
Holy hell. That movie was AMAZING. I’m so used to sitting through these best picture nominees every year and going “that was ok, but… best picture? It was fine, but… best?” Not this year! This film was phenomenal. Praiseworthy. Nearly perfect. I LOVED it.
I’ll start by saying I have a love-hate relationship with Aaron Sorkin. When he hits, he really hits. When he misses, well… let’s just say, I’m left underwhelmed. For me personally I feel like there are certain stories and executions that lend themselves well to Sorkin’s overly verbose fast-talking melodramatic flair. Sometimes he overdoes it. Sometimes it doesn’t quite fit the moment. Beautiful patriotic speeches worked wonder on the West Wing or in A Few Good Men; whereas Studio 60 and Moneyball took themselves too seriously. Even in his best work, the speeches can be a bit old. I was a bit worried early in the film; a young, attractive, talented prosecutor (played by the young attractive talented actor Joseph Gordon Levitt), gets called into the attorney general’s office, and starts by quietly reacting and saying “sir” while an over-the-top politician screamed at him. I got flashbacks to West Wing where, despite my love for the show, I couldn’t help but eventually get sick of this tired dynamic (why do people say “sir” to one anther so much in Sorkin’s brain?!). But that was subtle, and didn’t last long. There was only one moment in the entire film where I went “Ah ha! Now THERE’S a Sorkin speech!” The defendants were arguing amongst themselves when one of them launched into a shpiel about trying to look respectable for the sake of eventual electability, etc. Josh Lyman basically had wandered onto the set and ranted for a bit, then disappeared in a poof of smoke to be replaced by Eddie Ryman. For Sorkin fans, it was just the right-sized bite to satisfy without distracting. Indeed, overall, the writing in this film was superb and 100% on point. Solid Sorkin. Well done.
The film starts a fast-paced montage of historic clips and a running monologue introducing us to 6 of our 8 defendants, all playing over raging rock music and building tension and excitement. Juxtapose this intro with the intro from One Night in Miami, and the difference is night and day. One Night in Miami gave us long dialogue-driven intros to our various ensemble members that fell kinda flat. But Chicago 7 effectively did the same thing with only a couple seconds, covering a film’s worth of complex content in just a few short minutes, and while getting the audience super excited for the upcoming experience. It was amazing. Indeed, the rest of the film then continued to effortlessly skillful at balancing tension, humor, drama, and horror with stunning precision. We occilate from absurdity to drama without ever getting whiplash. And we. feel. every. single. emotion. We feel it. Maybe the closeness to recent historical events amplify these emotions (no, not maybe- definitely). This is absolutely true in the riot scenes, where my stomach churned with flashbacks of the past several weeks watching Capitol Riot footage. In both cases, I already know the casualty count, and yet… in both cases I feel real anguish and fear. But even the less-relatable scenes packed a punch. The movie ends with a super-dramatic, over-the-top speech that should have felt ridiculous. It was projected from a mile away; we knew it was coming. People start hooting and hollering and the music is screaming at us THIS IS THE DRAMATIC ENDING and the judge is banging his gavel and the bad guys become the good guys and it should have been the dumbest ending ever. But it wasn’t. It was incredible, and I have no problem admitting that I was 100% on board with that cheese train after having ridden it through so many dark and scary tunnels.
Of course, as much as I absolutely loved this movie, no movie is perfect. And, as with every historic film I review, I took a look at how closely it mirrored real life. Sorkin of course takes some liberties, and most of these are, I think, totally fine. The specific courtroom incidents were told out of order to ease the storytelling. Our melodramatic closing scene is based on something significantly less-dramatic that happened much earlier in the story, but it makes for a pleasing ending in a real-world that rarely has clean neat endings. Scenes captured the essence of our characters and events without always using the exact content. For example: activist comic Abbie Hoffman, appropriately portrayed here by activist comic Sacha Baron Cohen, jokes around on the first day of trial by yelling out “Father, no!” when Judge Hoffman tells the jury that they are not related; in real life Hoffman blew a kiss to the jury when he was introduced and the judge told them to disregard the kiss from the defendant. Close enough! But most of the more significant changes seemed to be made to better manipulate the audience into siding with our protagonists. Tom Hayden, performed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, is a clean-cut, politically-minded JFK-wanna-be who preaches non-violence, and whose brief moment of impassioned incitement was due to a regrettable slip-of-the-tongue. But supposedly real-life Hayden was a bit rougher-around-the-edges than presented, with a history of deliberate, inflammatory remarks, and an eccentric wardrobe to boot. Remy Davis, played by chameleon Alex Sharp, valiantly saves a woman from a completely imagined gangrape attempt. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, played by everyone’s-favorite-Batman and Birdman Michael Keaton, declared with absolute certainty before the judge that the riots were started by the Chicago police department and not the protesters. Even the prosecutor (Gordon-Levitt) sits on the fence, arguing to the attorney general that they shouldn’t bring the case because the charges are bogus, rising to his feet to support the defendants during our fake dramatic ending, and fretting about the judge’s mistreatment of defendant Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) so much that he is the one to call a sidebar to protest and request a mistrial. Oh yeah, and also, the film largely glosses over the fact that the fighting wasn’t exactly one-sided, and not all the protestors were peaceful. We have two entire defendants who were on trial for teaching people how to make bombs, which is a pretty damn big deal, but I don’t think that even gets mentioned in the film. Instead, the characters get shrugged off as just 2 less-important regular protesters who fell ass-backwards into the defense table. They’re so unimportant I’m not even going to bother looking up the character and actor names, since that’s how little weight the film assigned to them.
All that being said, do I think the film went too far in tilting the scales? Tough call. I don’t think they should have completely made up the weird subplot about some concocted feud between two attorney general’s sparring against one another and taking on these Good vs Evil roles. And the tired white knight rape rescue was just lazy. But I don’t think we stray too far from the truth to ruin the essence of what the film was about. We still have plenty of examples of characters threatening violence, screaming kill the pigs, preparing weapons, inciting mobs, etc. The tension, anger, and confusion among the characters and groups were still palpable. And one late scene, where our clean-cut peace-loving leader has to face the violent consequences of his words and his role in the chaos was especially effective. But the real story isn’t about these 7 (8?) people. Nor is it about the riot itself. Or the police officers. Nay, it is about the danger of an unjust, undemocratic system. It is a warning about the dangers of trying to squash dissent, scare opponents, silence voices, etc. It’s a warning about how close we can come to a total breakdown. And it’s a testament to the importance and fragility of our most sacred American values: free speech, free assembly, free press, due process, etc.
With this in mind, it is chilling to think of one element of the film that was absolutely not embellished: the cruelty and malice of Judge Julius Hoffman, depicted here by Frank Langella. Hoffman reminded me of our judge the very first time I went to federal court. Our judge wasn’t a sadistic asshole like Hoffman, but he was openly and visibly hostile to some attorneys and witnesses, and not to others. He definitely had a favorite side, which he didn’t mind telling us. And on top of that he just didn’t actually understand the law. In our case he didn’t understand the statutes; in Chicago 7 he repeatedly denied Seale a right to counsel. In one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, Hoffman instructs the bailiffs to take Seale into another room and deal with him as he should be dealt with,” at which point Seale was bound and gagged. In the movie we only had to handle this monstrosity for a few minutes; in real life it was three days. This act, this most terrible and saddening scene in the whole film the one that felt the most concocted, this horror so somber even Baron Cohen’s over-the-top Hoffman fell into silence, was the most real thing in the entire movie. It was the most visibly despicable of Hoffman’s decisions, but the plain truth was that one man – one man! -whose ego and personal opinions overshadow any understanding or sense of the constitution and democracy he is sworn to serve, can bring down all the carefully-crafted precautions of our founding fathers. And that is why, when we see any faltering of our ideals by our leaders, we must take action. We must speak out and use whatever voice we can find. Be it the hippies dancing in the park outside Chicago’s DNC, the zany attention-grabbing antics of Sacha Baron Cohen and Abbi Hoffman, the unmatched pen of Aaron Sorkin, or today’s impassioned cries of “Black Lives Matter!”
Okay, sorry, I started ranting and this is just a fun movie. But now you can see how powerful the film was, because it’s got me all fired up! Because, like I already said, HOLY HELL THIS MOVIE IS AMAZING.
Go see it right now.