Oscars voters will be sharpening their pencils for Aaron Sorkin’s political powerhouse. Comic Sacha Baron Cohen is a revelation as yippie Abbie Hoffman while Yahya Abdul-Matten II as Bobby Seale, Mark Rylance as the defense attorney and Frank Langella as the judge will surely be in contention. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden (Jane Fonda’s squeeze and later a Congressman) might also be favored. I guess Sorkin’s name will be in the hat but once again his writing and directorial skills clash.
The trial was a repercussion of the riots in Chicago surrounding the Democratic Convention in 1968. At the outset I was baffled and confused by the plethora of personalities and coming to grips with the American legal system but once the courtroom drama got underway I was hooked. The battle between a judge and defendants who refuse to recognize his authority plays out like Perry Mason at warp speed (though with the regulatory old-school last-minute intervention).
But I would urge you to see this on the big screen because at any one time so many characters litter the frame they will be too compressed on television and in part because the two most stunning scenes have far greater impact when the action is blown up.
As the various civil rights groups descended on Chicago to stage a protest, the police and National Guard expected a riot – and proceeded to start one. A few years later, the government produced trumped-up charges against the various leaders, including Black Panther Bobby Seale who just happened to be in the vicinity. We are well used, unfortunately, to police brutality and here it is no less brutal. The police have also infiltrated the various groups so can provide doctored evidence of intent. But what is most shocking is the way political will subverts the law. Even grizzled legal eagles are astonished by the judge’s antics especially when Bobby Seale is chained and gagged in the courtroom after one too many outbursts. On the other hand, the banter between the accused and the judge, while breaking protocol, is hilarious; Hoffman and sidekick Jerry Rubin often beating the judge to the punch which a cry of “overruled.”
As a young student at the time I was aghast at television images of the Vietnam War, had seen the Black Panther salute at the 1972 Olympics, and read some Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin, but was only vaguely familiar with the personalities behind opposition to the Vietnam War. Here, these personalities are presented mostly in confrontation with the exception of Jerry Rubin, who romances what turns out to be a cop. Wit of both the humorous and intelligent kind are given ample display, sometimes both together. It could have degenerated into a battle between Clever and Cleverer (Hoffman and Hayden, take your pick as to which was which), but that is only part of the wider picture.
While Sorkin’s brilliant script captures the quirks of both the personalities and the legal system, Sorkin the director gets in the way, insisting on incorporating black-and-white newsreel footage and inserting a stand-up comedy routine by Abbie Hoffman. And he definitely pulls his punches regarding Hayden ‘s contribution to the riots.
The best scene is the duel between Redmayne and Rylance in a dummy run for the former taking the witness stand. But the cinematic standout is the ending. Although echoing “Captain, My Captain” in Dead Poets Society (1989) it carries a far deeper meaning, setting on collision course two tenets of American culture, respect for the court and regard for those who have fallen on field of battle.
My only real carp is why this was a film at all when there is clearly ample material for a television series, a four- or six-parter along the lines of Mrs America (2020). I’ll probably watch this again when it reaches television but I will be surprised if it has the same impact as seeing it at my local cinema, where, by the way, I paid for admission. Either way, don’t miss it. It starts on Netflix Oct 16.