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Tale of Hoffmans
It may not be too hyperbolic to state that November 3rd may be a decisive turning point in millions of people’s lives. Writer/Director Aaron Sorkin’s new film reminds us that so-called freedom has a high price. Camus lawyers up for THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
 
  “What I found most interesting about this film, having watched the events on TV in 1968 as a 17-year old, is their rendering from several different points of view… I agree that the whole thing was a (spoiler – Ed.) but how it got started may be more than meets the eye. Perhaps the key question is not so much who initiates the violence, but who keeps fanning the flames. And that is where the parallel with Trump’s rhetoric resonates.”
  Arthur Todras, Contributor The Atlantic Magazine Facebook page*

 

In these bizarre, virus-riven times with another UK lockdown imminent, I’m still suffering from a psychological condition known as T.D.S., or Trump Derangement Syndrome. I’m not alone. It’s not so much the character of the man. It’s the continuing astonishment that anyone could be taken in by him. And this has nothing to do with partisan politics. Right, centre or left wing, you have to conclude that he is so obviously a con-artist, a bully, a coward and narcissist. Part of me hoped the members of the entire Republican Party with a sliver of a backbone between them might all up and quit after a few weeks. I’ve read all the books (Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened was something of a slog but Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck the most jaw-droppingly informative) and the fact that this clown is still installed as president is an affront to the American Constitution, written specifically in mind to protect the country from demagoguery of any kind. What the hell happened? After five years of all this (yes, I followed all the campaigning and a big shout out to Matt Taibbi’s terrific book on that campaign, Insane Clown President) I astonish myself at how I can still be dumbfounded daily. Can’t I just be mildly surprised at the next debacle? Trump has found a way to avoid censure and prison; become president and commit awful and sometimes unlawful acts with such alarming frequency that no one can keep up. It’s like trying to clamp a Formula One racing car mid-lap. Author and podcaster Sam Harris said on Andrew Sullivan’s debut podcast a few days ago that if he were Father Karras in the closing minutes of The Exorcist and it was Trump as the demon inside Regan, he would have happily hurled himself out of the window… I know what he means.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

But the Trump phenomenon has given me years of perverse pleasure in self-education. I have mainlined podcasts, the Atlantic magazine articles and books – not just on Trump – for quite a few years because my curiosity bullied me to be less uninformed. I read books by authors I disagree with just to add light to another perspective and why? Because conversation is all we have, that and mutually agreed facts that both positions can argue from. Without a foundation of what’s true, we are all lost. Public discourse seems to be modeled on the “I’m right!” “No, I’m right!” and that seems to be getting us nowhere. Don’t get me started on the idea of ‘post-truth’… I am much more informed about the workings of the US political system now, having only had seven seasons of The West Wing to afford me a glimpse before the Trump Era. Speaking of which, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin is back with another interpretation of a famous trial that brought the 60s to an end. Timed rather well to debut on Netflix six weeks before Tuesday November 3rd (am writing this on the evening of the 1st), when an enormous, powerful and once respected nation goes to the polls to either rescue or condemn its democracy, the film is an earnest and politically left-leaning account of a pivotal moment in US history. The trial centred around the state of Illinois’ concern over protests during the 1968 National Democratic Convention. President Lyndon Johnson was, to put it mildly, somewhat unpopular with the counter-culture and the ongoing Vietnam War was the fuel for the ire. Several independent leaders of groups and movements came to Chicago well aware that they were police-magnets. When the riots kicked off, eight were arrested as the suspected perpetrators and Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther movement (whose presence in Chicago had nothing to do with the protests) was ordered bound and gagged after attempting to represent himself in a courtroom presided by what must be one of the worst judges on record. I’d hoped that Sorkin’s characterisation of Judge Hoffman was in some ways over-dramatised but research leads me to believe this intolerant racist was as dreadful as actor Frank Langella superbly portrays him to be. He’s about as hissable a villain I’ve seen for a long time. The US Court of Appeals overturned Hoffman’s many contempt of court judgements and so the Chicago eight became seven. One of the seven was Abbie Hoffman – no relation to Judge Dreadful – the man many regard as the instigator of the flower-power movement. Played by Sacha Baron Cohen in a clever piece of casting, Abbie is the smart one always seeing through the sardonic lens of the era. He is also remarkably resolute. In Sorkin’s hands, Abbie is the visionary who understands the institutions and how they can be perverted. Cohen radiates intelligence (can great actors fake intelligence?) and his moments are big moments in the weave of the narrative.

Frank Langella as Judge Hoffman

The other cast is a certified dream team. Spielberg favourite Mark Rylance plays Defense Counsel, William Kunstler. Rylance is such an easy performer to watch with that soothing cadence and twinkle in his eyes. He is sporting a horrendous hairstyle, that while probably accurate, calls too much attention to itself, but it’s a minor blip. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who manages to stay human in the normally inhuman part, plays Rylance’s legal opponent, Federal Prosecutor Schultz. He is professional but also earnest and well-meaning. There are no teeth bared in his performance and it exudes a quiet, no-nonsense mining for the truth. This is perfectly captured in his respect shown at the close of the trial. He also gets to deliver the best line, “For a fruit fly!” which you’ll have to see in context to get. Notable for their moments of glory are Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, once President of the Students for a Democratic Society. Hayden was seen as a real-life hero for the left in US politics and went on to have a significant career and be an important legal friend to animals to boot. It should surprise no one that he married fellow activist and actress Jane Fonda in 1973. Redmayne is very effective as the then somewhat lost idealist who manages to hold on to his core character whilst skirting the barbs and glass-strewn paths that dissuade weaker souls from entering the dark mire of US politics. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the afore mentioned Bobby Seale, and goes at it with a gusto that was as refreshing as it was ineffective in front of a judge who wore his racism not only on his sleeves but also draped over his robes. To see Abdul-Mateen II trussed up and gagged in a court of law is still a shocking sight. The image reminds me why certain Republicans distanced themselves from their own party when state sanctioned torture came back to the US after 9/11 under George W. Bush’s tenure. Michael Keaton plays Ramsey Clark, Attorney General of the United States during the riots. He’s anxious for his side of the story to be heard but knows legally he’s on thin ice (and don’t forget the bastard of a judge). I still have fond memories of Judge Hoffman as a 41-year-old heartthrob in 1979’s Dracula. Frank Langella has had an extraordinary career and at 82 is still delivering the goods.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 started with Steven Spielberg who was slated to direct it as far back as 2006. Spielberg’s liberal heart seems to be in the right place even if not all his socially conscious movies have landed too well. Sorkin’s own direction is unfussy and how much of the dialogue is Sorkin’s based on a court case that one assumes was heavily documented is up for debate. Sorkin seems to have created a persona where in the industry, it is assumed whatever he writes is spun gold. Clever man, in many regards. But I’m a fan regardless of hits and misses. His heart? Right place. The film puts the trial front and centre (all five months of it) and intercuts the relevant events leading up to it. To a left leaning liberal like myself, the film is guaranteed to soothe me inside my bubble underlining decisions and actions that feign there being any innate justice on this planet. If justice is to be meted out, let Tuesday be its brightest day. To the polls, my American friends…

 


* https://m.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=29259828486&story_fbid=10159228826333487

The Trial of the Chicago 7 poster
The Trial of the Chicago 7

USA | UK | India 2020
129 mins
directed by
Aaron Sorkin
produced by
Matt Jackson
Tyler Thompson
written by
Aaron Sorkin
cinematography
Phedon Papamichael
editing
Alan Baumgarten
music
Daniel Pemberton
production design
Shane Valentino
starring
Eddie Redmayne
Alex Sharp
Sacha Baron Cohen
Jeremy Strong
John Carroll Lynch
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Mark Rylance
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Ben Shenkman
J.C. MacKenzie
Frank Langella
Danny Flaherty
Noah Robbins
John Doman
Michael Keaton
Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Caitlin FitzGerald

distributor
Netflix
uk release date
16 October 2020
review posted
1 November 2020

related review
The West Wing, Season 7

See all of Camus' reviews