Capraesque quality shines in Sorkin’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7 / Netflix

Aaron Sorkin is a gifted writer and a solid director and those facts are on display in what almost ironically turns out to be a feel-good movie in his latest drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which is now showing on Netflix.

You might ask how could a movie concerning a trial about whether seven individuals conspired to incite a riot could be a feel-good film? You’ll just have to watch to see. It does have a lot to do with the fact that the seven ultimately had lengthy sentences for contempt of court reversed and charges of conspiracy to incite riots overturned.

That’s not telling too much to anyone who paid attention in their high school or college American history classes, and for those who don’t remember the facts of the trial, it shouldn’t ruin this movie which is more about the American process of justice and how it can be used and misused in certain extreme cases.

Sorkin’s script deftly tells the story of how seven Vietnam War protesters — Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jermey Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharpe), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) — were accused and tried for conspiracy to incite a riot while protesting in Chicago near the site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Sorkin’s scripting work is at the same time smooth and biting, expertly detailing the issues at hand. While his direction is conventional, his years of television work allows his script to be brought to life functionally. His camera work isn’t showy. The movie is shot more like a TV show than a film. However his work behind the camera is more than functional to highlight his words and the actors projecting them.

The cast is a terrific ensemble with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Federal Prosecutor Richard Schultz and Mark Rylance as civil rights defense attorney William Kunsler. Gordon-Levitt takes an understated tact, while Rylance steams to keep his cool both in court and in counsel with the defendants.

Cohen and Strong give compelling and quite funny performances as Yippies Hoffman and Rubin. In fact, Sorkin ought to write a comedy featuring the pair because their timing and chemistry is so impactful.

Redmayne fumes as Hayden, who tries to keep it together but just can’t while facing charges that threaten to derail his life. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is even more combustible as Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party, who played no part in the protest that boiled over into a riot.

However, it’s the patrician smugness of Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie), who nearly steals the movie. He epitomizes the privilege and outdated views that clashes harshly against against the reality of the seven and their council. His performance epitomizes everything the counter-culture stand against.

Michael Keaton also turns in a small but strong performance as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who testifies during voir dire.

The film, though it is political, isn’t as preachy as one might expect. In fact, the movie has a Capraesque quality that I wasn’t expecting at all from Sorkin. For whatever reason, the film’s spirit reminded me of the Frank Capra classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from perhaps Hollywood’s greatest year 1939. Some might find it off-putting that the movie doesn’t hit harder, but honestly I found the film more watchable because of its considered and almost moderate tone.

While this has been a less than stellar year for movies because so few have actually opened thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will certainly gain some if not a great deal of Oscar consideration. From my point of view, it’s definitely deserved.

(R) 2 hr. 10 min.
Grade: A-

New In Local Movie Theaters

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    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne
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* The AMC Fiesta Square is currently closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Classic Corner – Friday Night Fright Fest

Julie Adams, Richard Carlson, and Ben Chapman in Creature from the Black Lagoon / Universal-International

Turner Classic Movies continues its Friday Night Fright Fest with four classic horror films from the wild and wacky 1950s tonight.

To start the night off with a splash,“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” emerges from the Amazon at 7 p.m., followed by “The Blob” with an early performance by classic Hollywood cool guy Steve McQueen at 8:30 p.m.

Vincent Price gives one of his many classic performances in the silly but fun 1959 thriller “The Tingler” at 10:15 p.m. The 1951 sci-fi/horror classic “The Thing from Another World,” which features a pre-Gunsmoke, James Arness as the Thing plagues an arctic outpost after its alien aircraft is found in the arctic to close out the night’s festival of frights..

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Hollywood put scores of rubber-suited monsters on the silver screen in the 1950s and early 1960s, but none were more iconic, scary, and cool than the Creature. Two actors portrayed the Gillman in the film.

Ben Chapman, a 6-foot-5 stuntman, gave the monster a statuesque presence on land, while Ricou Browning, who later went on to direct, produce, and write films, was the stuntman who portrayed the creature in the stunning underwater sequences.

Browning, 90, is revered for his underwater cinematography skills and is the only living actor who played one of the the classic Universal Monsters still with us. Browning was instrumental in writing and directing many episodes of the “Flipper” TV series and movies of the 1960s, and his work is notable in the underwater sequences of the James Bond film “Thunderball.” His last screen credit was coordinating marine stunts for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” in 2010.

There are many fine underwater sequences in the film, but perhaps the best features Browning swimming underneath the film’s female lead Julie Adams, who grew up in Blytheville, Ark.

The film is dated and definitely not scary by today’s standards, but it is still a lot of fun if only for the great design of the costume and the underwater stunts by Browning.