Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA/United Kingdom/India, 2020. Dreamworks Pictures, Amblin Partners, Aperture Media Partners, CAA Media Finance, Cross Creek Pictures, Double Infinity Productions, MadRiver Pictures, Marc Platt Productions, Paramount Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Rocket Science, ShivHans Pictures. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Produced by Stuart M. Besser, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson, Matt Jackson. Music by Daniel Pemberton. Production Design by Shane Valentino. Costume Design by Susan Lyall. Film Editing by Alan Baumgarten.
The events in the summer of ’68 during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago marked one of the high points of counterculture expression, the city teeming with activists, mostly young people, who wanted the politicians attending the event to know their feelings about the war in Vietnam and social injustice at home. What started as rowdy, unwieldy patriotism turned violent and in some cases deadly by the time the crowds had cleared, and the following year saw eight men brought to trial for having allegedly incited the melee that occurred: radical pacifist and leader of Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam David Dellinger (a perfectly cast John Carroll Lynch), Students for Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), individuals Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and, of course, the colourful presence of self-proclaimed ‘Yippies’ (Youth International Parties), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong). The eighth defendant in the lineup is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Black Panther member and odd man out, seemingly shoved in with the rest to make sure that white Middle America watching at home will be sufficiently put off by these radicals and give them as harsh a sentence as possible. Seale is also the first indication that the trial is not on the up and up, objecting to being brought to trial without his legal representative present and ignoring the insistence of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) that he take on the men representing the remainder of the party, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). That’s a long list and a lot of information to process, but this is an Aaron Sorkin party and loading you up with tons of data and then parsing it slowly through satisfying, if always a bit too self-congratulatory, drama is what his fans expect of him. As the days of trial drone on and on, the defense has to put up with their best witnesses and testimony being excluded from the record by Hoffman, whose faculties appear hazy and his competence questionable. The defense points out that that it was the Chicago police who turned things to violence that day, but even the defendants know that they are partaking in a show trial by the newly elected Nixon administration and are being made an example of to anyone who wants to question government authority and middle-class superiority. Sorkin moves through this tale swiftly and cleanly, it’s likely there are historians who will take issue with his summarizing and events and characterizations the way he does, not to mention point out the sheer balderdash of intelligent political poetry he has his versions of these real-life characters spouting, but they’d be well reminded that this is a drama, and that presenting the literal, moment-to-moment truth about the Chicago seven and their trial is not this film’s purpose in existing. Issues that are being discussed in loud and controversial ways in all forms of media seem like new concepts for many today, as does this idea of America as a bifurcated nation cut down the middle, but the inability to see the other side of the street has been plaguing the USA for a very long time. The film is all the more admirable for unironically featuring no dramatic flourishes or fragrant style, simply moving through its script with terrific verve and never letting the viewer feel its generous running time. Performances are mostly strong or at least can’t ruin the experience when they’re not, Redmayne’s dead eyes and soulless delivery reveal him to be focusing very hard on perfecting his American accent but he carries whatever weight is required of him, while Cohen and Strong in their cheap Halloween costumes and wigs are having way too much fun playing pretend and don’t share their pleasures with the audience. The finest work, actually, comes from the wickedly compelling Langella, who performs the character’s incompetent pettiness with all the confidence you expect of this well-traveled veteran, and makes for a formidable enemy for these fascinating heroes.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen); Best Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Original Song (“Hear My Voice”)
Golden Globe Award: Best Screenplay
Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen); Best Director (Aaron Sorkin); Best Original Song (“Hear My Voice”)
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Outstanding Motion Picture Cast
Nominations: Best Supporting Male (Sacha Baron Cohen); Outstanding Stunt Ensemble