An instant courtroom classic and a poetic film from Newfoundland
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin, director & script
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz), Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Jr (Bobby Seale), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), Mark Rylance (William Kunstler), Michael Keaton (Ramsay Clark), John Carroll Lynch (Dave Dellinger), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin)
If you’d like to get a two word review of Aaron Sorkin’s masterful evocation of the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the trial of the Chicago 7 (initially 8) the next year, here it is: See It. You can view it on Netflix and my recommendation is: Look at it tonight.
Now, let’s get into some political history so we can delve into what Sorkin tackled to make The Trial of the Chicago 7 such a terrific film.
Liberals and radicals in late Sixties U.S.A. knew when the liveliest era in American history stopped and gloves-off conservatives were back in power. It was when the Chicago 7 were indicted by a federal jury for conspiracy to incite the riots during the Democratic National Convention in August, 1968. Democrat Attorney-General Ramsay Clark, an appointee of President Johnson, spent months investigating the so-called riots and reached the conclusion that if any party was to blame for the violent events that summer, it was the police, not the anti-Vietnam War protestors. But that didn’t stop the new Republican President Richard Nixon from having his Attorney-General John Mitchell (both later to get their comeuppance in the Watergate scandal) from fully prosecuting the radicals in their midst: Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, former SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, notorious pacifist Dave Dellinger and Black Panther party leader Bobby Seale. That’s only six, you say? Just to be safe and give the trial jury a chance to be kind, the Republicans also indicted Lee Weiner and John Froines, so, as Weiner puts it in Sorkin’s film, they can be allowed to go free. Which, in fact, they did.
Aaron Sorkin couldn’t be a better choice to write and direct The Trial of the Chicago 7. As a scriptwriter, he created the justifiably famous courtroom drama A Few Good Men, with Jack Nicholson memorably biting off the words “You can’t handle the truth” to the young Tom Cruise. Recently, Sorkin scored his first Broadway hit with the theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird, famous for its scenes set in the courtroom, where Atticus Finch, played by Jeff Daniels on stage, is a lawyer with an ethical code. The courtroom scenes in this new film are flashy and brilliant, partially because so much of it was theatrical and—tragically—because too much of it was harshly authoritarian and, on one occasion, brutal.
Courtroom scenes rely on antagonists who can use their voices to great effect. Here the rival voices are embodied in the main lawyer for the 7, William Kunstler (played in a smart, low key style by the brilliant Mark Rylance) and the over-the-top stentorian tones of the presiding “hanging” Judge Julius Hoffman (interpreted in a bravura manner by Frank Langella). A blustery representative of the Republican right, the Judge’s only response to Kunstler’s verbal legerdemain techniques was to hold him repeatedly in contempt of court. Far worse for the Judge was his namesake, Abbie Hoffman, who used political theatre to provoke him and get headlines from the media attending the proceedings. At one point, Hoffman and his Yippie pal Jerry Rubin arrived in court wearing judge’s robes. When Julius Hoffman ordered them to remove the garments, Abbie and Jerry gleefully showed their police costumes hiding behind the robes. (That’s metaphorical subversion as well as being quite witty.) The Judge’s response? Another contempt of court citation.
But it was up to Bobby Seale, the Black Panther, who never wanted to be part of the case, to blow apart the theatrics of the Yippies. Refused a delay although his lawyer was about to have gall bladder surgery, Seale refused to engage Kunstler temporarily and was in turn denied the chance to defend himself by Judge Hoffman. When Seale and Hoffman reached the point of genuine anger, the audience got to see what underlies every judicial system: police violence. Beaten up, bound and gagged by the very Chicago police who actually created the riots at the Convention, Seale is put in his place in court—a Black man stripped of his right to speech and dignity—until Hoffman can do nothing else but to declare a partial mistrial and sever his case from the rest, turning 8 to 7. The charismatic performance of Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Jr as Seale is truly impressive as Sorkin ramps up the scene into a powerful indictment of what used to be called “the system” back then.
Much of the narrative, which moves from the courtroom to strategic scenes with Kunstler and his seven clients, inevitably goes back to the August demonstrations against the Democratic party, where the youthful followers of Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Dellinger and the rest were brutally beaten back by the Chicago police, in service of Mayor Daley and President Johnson’s National Guard. Here, Tom Hayden, played somewhat tentatively by Eddie Redmayne, becomes the central figure, caught trying to flatten a police car’s tire and heard on tape urging people to go for blood, while still holding to the belief that the government can be changed from within. Indeed the finest battle of antagonists are two of the 7: Sacha Baron Cohen’s effervescent, scheming Abbie Hoffman versus the more conflicted Hayden.
Zoomers may remember most of the trial. I hope they do since I’ve never forgotten a bit of this true courtroom drama. It plays in my head like a song exactly from exactly that time, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” For America, there was indeed “trouble on the way.” Aaron Sorkin has created a true piece of political theatre and another epic courtroom drama. Thumbs up, thumbs down, used to be the question for Ebert and Siskel. Ok, then: all thumbs up.
Body & Bones
Melanie Oates, writer and director
Starring: Kelly van der Burg (Tess Small), Joel Thomas Hynes (Danny Sharpe), Ruth Lawrence (Lisa), Lawrence Barry (Gerry O’Neal), Janet Cull (Jo)
In this time of #MeToo, it’s hard to create a drama about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. Melanie Oates, the writer and director of Body & Bones earns kudos for taking on such a story, which has its roots, it seems, in her own life as a teenager in Newfoundland.
In a very small town on the beautiful rocky coast, Tess (Kelly van der Burg) is trying to get over the death of her mother while coping with the demands of high school—senior year—and the usual ineffectual boyfriend. Into Tess’s fraught existence comes Danny (Joel Thomas Hynes), a late 30-something bad boy, who left ages ago for the bright lights of the big city (St. John’s—never identified). Tess has listened to Danny’s folk music and admires him. When she meets him, her heart goes boom, and all too soon, she’s off to St. John’s to be with him.
Danny owns a bar, has another girlfriend, and, to be fair, doesn’t press himself onto this younger girl. But the heart wants what it wants and soon, Tess’s life has become far worse than it was before. Throughout, Tess’s inner-life is brought out in dreamy scenes, which shows her withdrawal from a painful life. The audience sees what Tess doesn’t: Danny isn’t a bad man but he certainly isn’t right for her.
Body & Bones is the kind of quiet, poetic film that draws polite applause at festivals but doesn’t become a big success. As a male cis gendered hetero critic, I was moved by Oates’ work with Kelly van der Burg, who plays Tess. I know what a mainstream (yes, likely male) filmmaker would’ve done with this story. Tess would have been more overtly sexy, with her inner life being “mysterious.” We’d never see her struggle to become whole as an adult while dealing with her mother’s death. In Melanie Oates film, we’re invited into Tess’s life as she struggles to work out how to be a woman. Kudos to Melanie Oates for putting herself out there in her first feature film. And to author and musician Joel Thomas Hynes, who dominates every scene he’s in: well done.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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