Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 21, 2020 4:41 pm 
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DEFENDANTS TABLE IN THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

A hilarious and instructive time-capsule

In an interesting recent Times op-ed piece, a young man now preparing his doctorate at Cambridge talks about how he worked his way up from a very rough start in America - seven foster homes. TV was central as a teacher as well as a babysitter in his early years, and "The Fresh Prince" and "The O.C." were important guides to class. They showed him just money wasn't the thing; education counts a lot. Then when in the military, he got to pal around with a recent Yale graduate, and discovered him watching something on his MacBook. It was "The West Wing." He rushed to watch it. He didn't think it was very good. He learned he wasn't supposed to like it. It was made for and scored high with high-income and well educated classes.

He learned and thought more, looking at the characters. "They engaged in fierce debate with political foes, but respected them too. The characters who staffed the Bartlet administration were highly educated, extremely witty, clever and idealistic. It made me wonder: Was this show so popular among elite college graduates because they saw aspirational versions of themselves in it? And if this was how they aspired to be, was this also how I should aspire to be?"

Sometimes people are impatient with Sorkin, as shown by widespread condemnation of his later series, "Newsroom," even by The New Yorker's authoritative (and witty)] Emily Nussbaum. It has taken me time to realize that not everyone loves Sorkin's writing, though a large number seem to approve his 2010 skewering of Facebook's founder in The Social Network, whose New York Film Festival premiere made this writer a Sorkin convert.

With this context it's clear, anyway, why Aaron Sorkin took on the subject of the Chicago 7 trial. This crazy legal travesty and media circus that followed the Democratic convention of 1968 and the huge demonstrations at the height of the anti-Vietnam War moment brings to light a bunch of important moral and political issues, and the issues of police-initiated riots and a corrupt judiciary are extremely relevant today. The courtroom and the assembling of these outspoken defendants is a golden opportunity for Sorkin to display his talent for wit and intelligent dialogue in a context of moral urgency.

Sorkin establishes the context at the beginning of the film. The Vietnam War has been stepped up dramatically by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the anti-War movement is raging on many fronts, from the serious revolutionary spirit of SDS co-founder Tom Hayden to the traditional pacifism of David Dellinger, with the provocative, grandstanding agitprop of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in between. The pretext of the trial, we learn, was false: These eight people had not crossed state lines and conspired to start riots and some of them had never met. Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale had only been in Chicago for four hours, to give a speech. The outgoing Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, had determined that the riots at the Democratic National Convention had been started by the police, urged on by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The trial was instigated by NIxon's new Attorney General, John Mitchell, whose main concern seems to be that Ramsey Clark didn't vacate the office as fast as he would have liked.

If you're looking for a good time, and maybe for either a nostalgia fest or a history lesson, Trial is a safe bet. It has its delights and its disappointments too. It's a little hard for the actual film to live up to the sheer fun of seeing a cast roster combining such unexpected Brits as Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Mark Rylance with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the chief federal prosecutor, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark.

Baron Cohen particularly surprises and shines as the Yippie provocateur Abbie Hofman, and incidentally his achievement of a pitch-perfect Worcester, Mass. accent will be one of the unsung triumphs of the film. Frank Langella, now 80, is, as always, impressive; his Judge Hoffman is suitably appalling without ever being a caricature. In Sorkin's script, Hoffman's inability to get the names straight gives Abbie Hoffman a chance for a witty corrective distinguishing Dillinger, Derringer, and Dellinger. A lot of this stuff didn't really quite happen as neatly as Sorkin writes and, stages it: he's condensing a 5-month trial, after all. Some things manifestly don't work. As the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is explosive and strong, but the brutality of Seale's treatment in the courtroom is somewhat underplayed. Mark Rylance is a disappointment as chief defense counsel William Kunstler. Neither his soft-spoken manner nor the appeasing writing does justice to the bold authority of the real Kunstler. This, in reality, was a very complex show. Sorkin doesn't get everything right.

In fact, this would have worked well as a mini-series, and the high-speed mashups of courtroom scenes with background scenes of the lead-up events, thanks to the dubious facility bestowed on editor Alan Baumgarten by digital technology, only heightens our awareness that there are a lot of people and events condensed into these packed two hours. Nonetheless, writer-director Sorkin and his cast and crew have put a together a fabulously effective combination of entertainment and instruction, a movie that reminds, or teaches, us a whole lot about the main issues in America of the Sixties while the repartee and dramatic stunners make the run-time breeze by.

Nonetheless Sorkin-haters will be out in force to condemn this film with the usual accusations. Armond White is not wrong when he says Sorkin "disdains nuance," but goes too far when he calls him "smarmy, cutesy, and fake." Peter Bradshaw shows the usual prejudices and goes way over the top with them when he accuses Sorkin of a tendency to be "fantastically ponderous, bloated with finger-waggingly self-important liberal patriotism," then slings a diminishingly effective series of adjectives: "exasperatingly dull, dramatically inert and faintly misjudged." It is true Sorkin tweaks facts, true that he has points to make. But he's hardly untrue to the spirit of the momentous period this film tells us so much about. Hopefully this will inspire the young to go back to the history.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, 129 mins., debuted in limited release Sept. 25, 2020, opening on Netflix in the US and online in many other countries Oct. 16. Metascore 76.

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SACHA BARON COHEN AND JEREMY STRONG IN THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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