The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By: Kevin Jordan

A Few Good Men

As I write this, it is January 2021. A few days ago, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, attempting a violent insurrection of the U.S government, fueled at its core by anger, hatred, and lies. That event is still very raw for us, and in some ways, it made watching this movie very uncomfortable. It sparked a discussion between my wife and me about sympathy, and whether it is possible to feel compassion for people, no matter their methods or beliefs, who think they are doing the right thing by standing up to the establishment. I think it is possible…but there is a limit to that compassion.

The recent actions at the Capitol have been called a protest by some, but after watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, I know the Capitol rioters were not protestors. If a protestor brings firearms to a protest, they cease being protestors and, by definition, become terrorists. If a citizen attacks the government of his or her own country, they became traitors. I understand why they are upset, but I have no sympathy. There is definitely a right and wrong, and starting a violent insurrection of our government because your guy didn’t win is wrong.

The 1968 protestors, on the other hand, were at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. Specifically, they wanted an end to the war in order to prevent more American soldiers from dying. From the evidence available, it seems that they were not armed and certainly did not show up wearing tactical combat gear. They were not there because they believed a mountain of lies, and evidence also suggests that they did not incite violence; the police did. So, yes, I have sympathy for them because they were peacefully protesting based on verifiable facts and common decency. That is why we view the main characters in the film as the protagonists rather than view them as the dirty hippies that they were accused of being at the time.

(SPOILER ALERT – It’s been fifty-two years and the fact that many of us, myself included, do not know this history is sad.)

Knowing nothing about the protests in the film, my main reason for wanting to watch it was Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing remains one of the best written television shows of all time and I will always watch a Sorkin film because of it. Even if you did not know The Trial of the Chicago 7 was written by Sorkin, you will know very quickly. It features Sorkin’s signature long takes and witty dialogue, hooking you instantly. It also won’t take you very long to notice the similarities to A Few Good Men, another Sorkin classic. And who doesn’t love a very well written courtroom drama?

Much of the film takes place in a courtroom, showing us the trial of eight men – Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – interlaced with flashbacks that piece together the events leading up to the riot and the riot itself. Yes, that is eight men, not seven. I know – I was confused too. A major part of the story is how Bobby Seale was arrested as part of the effort by authorities to stamp out the protests, even though he wasn’t part of the group that planned the protest, as well as an attempt to take down the Black Panthers (which Seale cofounded). Eventually, Seale was removed from the case and the charges were dropped, though that was by no means the end of his legal travails. He was also arguably the most memorable part of the trial, if not the film.

Seale is the first reason to feel sympathy for the group as a whole. His lawyer was in the hospital when the trial started and the judge refused to delay the trial to wait for his lawyer to recover. Even though neither you nor I are lawyers, we both know that forcing a person to stand trial without a lawyer is illegal, a violation of the constitution, and, to put it in Latin terms, horseshit. When this fact is pointed out several times by Bobby, as well as by the lead council for the other seven, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) shrugs it off without a care for the law or justice. Immediately you side with the defendants, especially Bobby, and hate Judge Hoffman with a passion.

As the trial moves along, the blatant injustice perpetrated by Judge Hoffman becomes infuriating. He constantly dismisses objections, evidence, testimony, and the law, always to the detriment of the defendants while demeaning them in the process. In addition, he doles out arbitrary and capricious admonitions, as well as contempt charges, as if he has a side bet with the prosecution’s boss. And during this whole facade, you will wonder if there is a line Judge Hoffman can cross that will cause federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to finally speak up. As it turns out, the answer is yes, but it is the bare minimum and far overdue in the course of the trial.

This being a Sorkin vehicle, the defendants are ready with quick witticisms and smart retorts. Abbie and Jerry provide plenty of levity to keep the trial from becoming a medieval inquisition, though rack up the contempt charges at a brisk pace. Throughout the length of the trial, we get to know the men through the flashbacks and conversations outside the courtroom. The back and forth between the timelines works great for character building and slowly ratchets up the drama as both the trial and pre-riot events come to a climax. It’s like watching the best pieces of The West Wing hook up with the best pieces of A Few Good Men and you almost cry it’s so good.

Besides the writing, the reason why the whole movie works so well is the acting. Every line in the film is delivered with a passion that would make the actual historical figures proud. Well, maybe not Judge Hoffman. The whole point of acting is to make the audience believe the actor is the character. Langella puts forth a performance that makes Hoffman the odious and hateful person he is described as being (yes, I did some reading after watching the film). It’s the kind of performance that would make Hoffman’s mother roll over in her grave and it was awesome to behold. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Cohen shines as Abbie Hoffman, as does Redmayne as Hayden. The two of them are at odds with each other while sharing ideals, and the exchanges are everything we love from Sorkin. As an added bonus, we even get treated to five-ish minutes of A-plus Michael Keaton near the end of the second act.

As well as being a fantastic movie, it is also an extremely relevant movie. Being released in summer of 2020, during the heights of the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, is apropos due to both the film and current events putting a spotlight on police brutality, institutional racism, and people protesting to make the message heard. It will absolutely invoke sympathy in any viewer with an ounce of decency and caring for his fellow Americans. It is exactly the movie we need right now to make us see things for what they are and to remember that protesting requires truth and non-violence. It is the kind of movie that shows us we only need a few good people to make a difference.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask for a history book. You can handle the truth.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One

By: Kevin Jordan

Whew!

If you are not a fan of CGI and think that CGI is ruining film, Ready Player One might kill you.  At the very least, it will give you an aneurism or a stroke.  Possibly both.  If so, you deserve it.  I am not quite ready to devote my year-end review to all of the incessant whining about the use of CGI in movies, but I am seriously thinking about it.  CGI is one of those topics that film snobs love to use as an excuse for hating some movies, right alongside with “there is no more creativity in Hollywood.”  Forget about the fact that CGI has allowed us to realize hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of elements within movies that would otherwise be impossible.  Could you imagine how stupid Spider-Man would look if all of his web-slinging was done via wire-work?  Oh, right, they tried that on Broadway.  I rest my case.

My point is if there is one thing Ready Player One has a ton of it is CGI.  My greater point is that Ready Player One could not be made without a ton of CGI.  Nearly the entire movie takes place in a virtual simulation called the OASIS where anyone can be anything or have anything they want.  Want to race through a city in an exact replica of Doctor Brown’s Delorian while dodging a rampaging T-Rex?  Want to be seen as a nine-foot tall warlock or the Iron Giant?  Want to pilot Mechagodzilla while fighting an army on a planet called Doom?  None of that is happening without a lot of help from computers.  And if it is, it probably looks terrible.

Be all that you can be.

Having read and loved the book of the same title, I was terrified that the movie was going to be a disappointment.  Mostly, because I managed to see multiple previews at other screenings, but also because with great CGI comes great responsibility.  Happily, the effects of the movie are fantastic, as well they should be given the $175 million budget of the film, but also because director Steven Spielberg is a genius.  Everything felt like it had depth and texture and nothing felt flat.  One great example is an early race scene that manages to feel claustrophobic and tense, even though it is happening on open streets and is nothing more than pixels, even for the characters.  At no point did I ever feel like the visuals were just throwing ones and zeroes at me in attempt to overwhelm my senses.  I even appreciated the 3-D effects, which I normally hate, despite the arms of the cheap 3-D glasses jabbing me in the side of the head.

It was pretty dazzling.

The film also stays fairly faithful to the source material, in no small part aided by the author (Ernest Cline) co-writing the screenplay (with Zak Penn).  If you have not read the book (do it now), the main plot is a treasure hunt within the OASIS, a hunt designed by the creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance).  Competitors must solve three puzzles (including discovering the location of the puzzles) to obtain three keys, which will unlock an Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS.  Whoever finds the Egg gets full control of the OASIS and inherits Halliday’s half-trillion dollar fortune.  The details of the puzzles vary between the film and the book, but the structure remains intact.

Naturally, everyone is trying to win the game, but nobody has figured out how to complete the first puzzle.  Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a. Parzival is a Gunter – players who spend all of their time hunting for the egg – and also knows virtually everything about Halliday and the things Halliday liked (movies, video games, music, etc.).  This knowledge eventually leads him to crack the mystery of the puzzle and put him on the radar of everyone in the world, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and all-around jerk-off.  Sorrento has tasked an army of indentured servants (people who have accrued debt within the OASIS) with winning Hallday’s Egg in order to assume control of the OASIS and monetize the crap out of it.  If you are any kind of gamer, even the kind that plays Candy Crush on your iPhone, you would hate this guy because he is the one advocating for inserting ads and incorporating microtransactions into games (think freemium games where there are things you can only get if you pay actual money for, but the game itself is free).  He will stop at nothing to win the game, including kidnapping and murder, but excluding actually playing the game himself.  In other words, he is the guy who buys a game, then buys the walkthrough guide for the game so he can get to the end without effort.  What kind of loser does that?

It’s all just a game.

Along the way, Parzival joins forces with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other kids (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) whose characters are so underdeveloped they are literally just avatars.  Together, they try to solve the remainder of the puzzles, but not before Art3mis welcomes Parzival into “the rebellion.”  This rebellion Art3mis is referring to is a group of people trying to stop IOI from taking over the OASIS because IOI will wreck the openness/freedom of the OASIS by indebting more people and creating a class structure of the haves and have nots.  If you get this from the film, it is only because you read the book, as the film only occasionally mentions such social issues.  If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent movie it is that the film has plenty of CGI, but none of the book’s balls.

I guess it does have one ball.

One of the highlights of the book is the way that Cline was able to focus on social issues through the lens of the OASIS like income disparity, class separation, and the inability of poorer classes to improve their standing in life.  Whenever the film seems to be ready to make some real social commentary, it shies away from the conversation and distracts the viewer with action and adventure.  For example, book-Parzival talks about how it is nearly impossible for him to compete for Halliday’s prize because he does not have money to pay for transit to other worlds.  Like with our freemium games, real money is used to purchase power-ups and Parzival has no real money.  By finding the first key first, he gains instant fame and earns money through endorsements, allowing him to better compete, but also that a poor guy suddenly has lots of cash.  The book explores how money opens doors and effects people and makes the reader think about that with regards to people in the lower classes.  I am not saying the film should go deep-diving into social commentary, but those elements were key in developing Parzival and his character arc in the book, and film-Parzival was noticeably shallower.  But, then Parzival and Art3mis get into a shootout while dancing in a zero-G club and deep thoughts are forgotten.

Good luck affording that (in the book).

Having said that, it was refreshing to see Spielberg jump back into directing a big, fun, blockbuster flick and knock it out of the park.  His handling of the CGI was near perfect (and props to all of his effects folks and cinematographers).  Perhaps the most fun thing is that the movie is stuffed full of pop-culture references from the late 1970s to now (reportedly, acquiring licensing for all of it took years) and all of them are fun and well incorporated.  My personal favorite is a small one from a movie called Krull and if my brother had been with me, we would have high-fived over it (if you spot it, please, please comment as proof that more than two people have seen Krull).  We also would have high-fived about the CGI because this movie would have sucked without it.  If you still hate CGI after this film, I will still call you an ambulance because you deserve it.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back and spend more for the book.

Dunkirk

By: Kevin Jordan

The war-iest of war movies.

We’ve all seen what Christopher Nolan is capable of and it’s almost always been fantastic.  We’re at a point now where “Directed by Christopher Nolan” is all that needs to be said to peak interest in a new movie.  In other words, the opposite of “Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.”  We’ve also come to expect a certain type of movie; one with a well-written and intriguing story featuring rich characters, dazzling visuals, and sounds/music that are almost a character unto themselves.  When Dunkirk was announced and the first trailers dropped, our immediate reaction was “YAAAAAASSSSSS.”  The thing is we haven’t seen a Nolan movie like this before.

For those of you who don’t have the slightest idea what Dunkirk refers to, stop reading now.  You are the only people who will be surprised by the events depicted in this film.  For the rest of you, Nolan dispenses with the rich characters and intriguing plot to focus on the final day (apparently) of the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk, France in June, 1940 during World War II.  Don’t get me wrong, there are characters in this film, but none of them are developed to the point where you might care whether they live or die.  And, the plot is just a telling of the event through the lens of a few anecdotes featuring some of those characters.  But, like I said, that isn’t the point of this movie.

Here’s the point of this movie.

The point of this movie was to put the audience on the beach with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers desperate to escape the oncoming German army, air force, and artillery (with Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh).  The point of this movie was to put the audience into the seat of a British Spitfire fighter plane (with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), dogfighting with German Luftwaffe.  The point of this movie was to put the audience on a civilian boat (with Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy, and Barry Keoghan) making its way to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers.  And that is exactly where you, the audience, feel like you are.

If you intend on seeing this film, see it in IMAX or you will miss out on the full experience.  The movie was filmed with IMAX cameras in order to take full advantage of the technology and make you suspend your disbelief that you are sitting in a theater in 2017 and not a French beach in 1940.  Nolan and his visual team also filmed as many practical effects as possible, to the point in which (according to Nolan), there is no scene in the movie that is pure CGI.  Yes, that includes flying actual Spitfires (or replicas) and, in some cases, crashing them.

You should also sit in the back row near the speakers (which is where I was sat for the screening).  The sound and music (by Hans Zimmer) were amazing and our place in the theater was literally vibrating in tune with the movie.  It might very well be that everyone in the theater felt that as well, but I’ve seen a lot of IMAX movies and it’s the first time I felt like the music was literally moving me.  There’s also a ticking clock underscoring the music throughout nearly the entire film, which heightens the tension in the film.  The genius of the ticking is that there are stretches where you can’t hear it, but you know it’s still there.  And when it finally stops, it’s almost deafening in its silence.  Yeah, I’m totally geeking out over it.

I don’t remember his name, but he’s a hell of a pilot.

Speaking of tension, book a massage for after the film.  Even if you are familiar with the event, you can’t help but clench every muscle during the film.  Even though you won’t be emotionally connected to the characters, you are expecting them to eat it at any moment, which makes the film that much more tense.  Do not buy food or drink because you will forget you have those things.

The bottom line is Dunkirk is an excellent film from an extraordinary filmmaker.  Dunkirk shows us the height of technical filmmaking while delivering a harrowing experience for audience members, regardless of how historically literate one might be.  You would be forgiven for expecting something closer to Saving Private Ryan or Titanic, but embrace the fact that you are getting an extremely well-funded history lesson that will make you duck and cover in what may be the best, pure war movie you have ever seen.

Rating: Worth triple what you paid for it, especially for the IMAX surcharge.

Bridge of Spies

By: Kevin Jordan

Finally, a decent history lesson.

bridge_of_spies

If there are two people in Hollywood you can depend on delivering a decent-to-great movie, they are Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Yes, Spielberg is responsible for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and, yes, he’s still very, very sorry.  But aside from that, you always leave their movies thinking you at least got your money’s worth.  Bridge of Spies is no different, but with the added bonus of teaching you something about history that you didn’t know before.  This is the complaint I had about Pawn Sacrifice and 42 (among others) – they just rehash the major event(s) you already know about and don’t dig beneath the surface because then America (or its government) might not look so awesome.  Conversely, Bridge of Spies almost forgets to show the major event at all.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to the U-2 incident in 1960.  If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because American history classes failed you spectacularly.  In 1960, an American U-2 reconnaissance (read: spy) plane was shot down over Russia.  Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), was captured, as were large pieces of the plane, including its cameras.  If Bridge of Spies was following the blueprint of those other films, it would have centered on that event and the things leading up to it as well as focusing on whatever quirky character traits Powers may have had.  Instead, the film focuses on the lawyer negotiating for his release, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks).  Even better, it gives us a quick overview of the capture of a Russian spy in 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the initial construction of the Berlin Wall, and the arrest of an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), in East Germany in 1960.  If you knew that any of these other things happened and were tied to the U-2 incident, you are either a Cold War historian/fanatic or you are much older than I am and still have a good memory.

Let me put all of things together for you – Donovan is tasked by his law firm partner (Alan Alda) to provide a defense of Abel in order to show that America cares about law and Abel is given a fair trial.  This is immediately trashed by public opinion and the judge presiding over the case as all of them willfully ignore the rule of law because (a) the judge is only interested in protecting his reputation, not the law and (b) hang that commie traitor.  One of the more interesting details of the film is that Donovan is constantly correcting people on that term – Abel isn’t a traitor because he’s not a US citizen; he’s just a spy (allegedly).  It’s a great character-building moment (among many others) showing that Donovan isn’t interested in politics or racism, he’s just interested in doing his job and defending the constitution.  He even goes so far as to explain to the judge how this very concept will allow the USA to take the high road, but the judge just doesn’t care and neither do the ignorant people who think spewing hatred is the equivalent of patriotism.

Incidentally, the first act of the film is filled with this message and is a great allegory to the current Muslim scare we are experiencing today.  People have bought into the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) spewed by some in the media and government that every Muslim is evil, just like their parents/grandparents did during the second Red Scare of the 1950’s and ‘60’s (as did their parents/grandparents in the first Red Scare of the 1910’s and ‘20’s).  The first act portrays that FUD in a somewhat sanitized way, but gets the message across just the same – that people do despicable things like shoot at houses, give dirty looks, and bad mouth others who have the temerity to act like actual human beings towards those they are supposed to hate.  In other words, they act like the very ideological American that those “patriots” claim to be.

(Sorry, that got heavy.)

Anyway, getting back to tying things together, the second act begins with the capture of Powers and Pryor and the CIA asking Donovan to negotiate a prisoner swap – Abel for Powers.  As you should have surmised by now, Donovan isn’t the type of guy to leave a man hanging (Pryor), so he works to get both Americans released in exchange for Abel and the rest of the movie commences.

If you’ve seen any of the promos on television for Bridge of Spies, you may have noticed the extreme hyperbole regarding its Oscar-worthiness.  If you buy into any of these promos you will almost assuredly be disappointed in the film – it’s a very good film, but not mind-blowing.  Hanks gives his usual A-game performance, overshadowing everyone but Rylance, who steals the show in his limited screen time.  Also, kudos to the Coen brothers and Matt Charman for a very tight screenplay – I usually don’t like what the Coens put out (O Brother, Where Art Thou? not withstanding), but this one spoke to me in a very good way.  A history way.

Rating: Ask for some of your tax dollars back for a history fail in school, but don’t ask for anything back for this film.