By John H. Foote
(****) In Theatres/Netflix
There was a time Steven Spielberg was going to direct this, but it never seemed to jell, not even the great Spielberg could get the film off the ground. As the project bounced around it eventually fell at the feet of Emmy Award winning, and Academy Award winning (The Social Network, 2010) Aaron Sorkin, a gifted writer who created The West Wing and the play A Few Good Men, eventually writing the film. Most recently on stage he adapted To Kill a Mockingbird, with actor Jeff Daniels giving what is now a legendary performance as Atticus Finch. Should they remake the film, and they might, please let Daniels be Finch, and just hand him an Oscar.
After helming the legal thriller based on a true story, Molly’s Game (2018), with the remarkable Jessica Chastain, he has proven he can direct, more than proven he can guide actors with a sure hand from a screenplay he wrote.
When he took on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin must have been aware of the intense pressure he immediately came under because the film had been in various stages of development for years, was expected to be a great picture, and nothing less would do.
Let me be clear, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is among the year’s very best films, an Oscar frontrunner and could very well land the top prizes. It is that good, no, it is that great. Wordy, but those words are brimming with intelligence, a look into the past which seems to bend forward to touch the present to make a very succinct point, that little has changed while much has been altered. It is history, but also must have a degree of entertainment, which given the superb performances within the film, it most certainly has.
The Chicago 7 were a group of Americans charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and several other charges by the United States government for the events that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The convention was marred with demonstrations attacking American involvement in Vietnam, and counterculture protests that had become popular among the youth.
The seven charged men were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) who later married actress Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Initially charged was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) though his charges were severed from the seven into another trail.
“The whole world is watching” was a popular cry among the youth during the trial which took place in 1968-69, and they were exactly right. Sadly, have we come all that far? Given the United States is days away from the most important Presidential election in its history, suddenly this new film takes on a greater resonance in its portrait of personal freedoms and freedom of speech.
Though Hayden believes in peaceful protests, he is at odds with the flamboyant Hoffman, who loved being at the centre of the hurricane, it might even be said he loved being the centre of the counterculture movement. Though Hayden and Hoffman are on the same side, though they are being tried for the same crimes, they believe in very different methods of protestation. Everyone knows what happened at the convention, chaos ensued, much of it created and supported by Hoffman. Even those being tried with him took issue with his actions.
John Mitchell (John Doman) hands young Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt) the case of his career when he asks the younger man to try the men he believes to be responsible for the unrest caused at the convention. With Richard Nixon, Mitchell wants the charged seven men used to set an example to the rest of America as to what could happen to others creating such unrest. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) defended the men charged, while the presiding judge was the dangerous, incompetent Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a staggering example of incompetence and pure political evil.
Superb performances highlight the film, especially Langella as the corrupt Judge, Eddie Redmayne as the whip smart Hayden, Cohen as the brash press savvy showboat Hoffman, Mark Rylance as the often flabbergasted Kunstler, and Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark, intense perfect in two small scenes. Can you imagine a younger Keaton as Hoffman, 20, 30 years ago? The thought made me swoon.
The film is a historical event, as the courtroom becomes the stage for freedom of speech, and the right to protest in public what they feel is wrong, including the decisions of their government.
Rylance continually nails and attacks the broken justice system, growing more and more frustrated, while Redmayne is superb, bringing to the film Hayden’s sharp intellect and awareness of what is right and wrong, while Cohen is brilliant as the wildly over the top Hoffman, who clearly loves attention, but does not comprehend what his show boating could do to the men. He simply cannot figure out that he could be the greatest liability of the seven men, which aside from the outright dangerous Judge, he most certainly is.
As he did in the many great episodes of The West Wing, Sorkin writes beautifully, long legal passages in which he makes sense of convoluted laws, and being a court room film, the film breathes, it moves, it is never dull to watch. If it has a flaw, it would be a lack of grit, a lack of rage for why they are on trial. Think about it! Americans, patriots all have been charged by their government for protesting a war that the country had no business being in! Young Americans were dying every day in Vietnam, and finally after following their leaders with near blind faith the youth protesting have decided blind faith will get you killed.
Langella is frightening in creating a man with extraordinary power but is utterly incompetent at what he does, and incapable of making such important decisions. Moreover the film explores what can happen when such men have unspeakable power they cannot handle or understand. Chaos, madness and a country at war with itself.
Sound familiar? It is meant too.
Oscar possibilities include Best Film, Director, Actor (more than one), Supporting Actor (more than three) and Screenplay. In many ways it feels like a seventies film, very smart, very accurate and filmed with a clean eye and purity we rarely see.
Though Sorkin finished the screenplay in 2008, and Spielberg stepped aside to allow him to direct in 2018, obviously the script has been altered many times. Trump must have been a wet dream for Sorkin, providing him with the perfect example on which to base Langella’s judge.
As Charlton Heston roared at the gorilla torturing him with water in Planet of the Apes (1968), “It’s a mad house!”
Yes it was, and yes it is.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.