Like a good book, this is a real page turner. Aaron Sorkin is the master of fast-paced, cutting dialogue making it suit each character in this recreation of a turbulent time, not unlike the contentious climate we live in now.
“The whole world is watching” was the chant during the 1968 Democratic Convention Chicago that set off riots pitting anti-war protestors against police. It ended up in a circus trial that lasted months. The courtroom scenes are filled with so much tension, they are uncomfortable to watch.
Sorkin has put together an extraordinary ensemble cast. Eddie Redmayne plays cerebral Tom Hayden as preppie activist from California who later entered politics. Redmayne shows great range playing Hayden as the soft-spoken resister who is politically strategic. Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis is the buddy who came with as his compatriot from California.
Sacha Baron Cohen is the most colorful character playing Abbie Hoffman, always quick with a quip. Sorkin gives him more depth and intelligence than his flip Yippie persona. Yippies were anti-establishment pranksters who got a lot of attention and Hoffman was a ring leader with a lot of charisma. Cohen looks the part and projects Hoffman’s mystique, but his fake and inconsistent Boston accent sometimes took him out of character.
Sorkin didn’t make Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin as prominent as influential as Hoffman. John Carol Lynch is David Dellinger plays the family man most rational of the bunch, until he couldn’t take it anymore. He was there to protest, and trying keep the demonstrations peaceful, but got dragged into the trial anyway.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is dynamic as the brooding Bobby Seale, the Black Panther and the only Black member of the Chicago 7. He was set up. He wasn’t even at the protest! But he was targeted by the federal government that was trying to make examples of these protestors. He even gets bound and gagged in the courtroom during the trial which is a scene that is so incredibly disturbing. Sorkin enhances the brutality of it showing the courtroom artist’s drawings.
Mark Rylance shows an amazing amount of restraint as William Kuntsler, the long haired legal mastermind who was defending all but Seale and he had to keep a lid on their tempers and tantrums. His gives what we think is an award worthy performance. Rylance is soft-spoken but when his emotions finally boil over, the impact is indelible.
Another performance that should be considered during award season is that of Frank Langella as authoritarian Judge Julius Hoffman. All knew from Day One of the trial that Hoffman was out to get them. Frank Langella is stunning expressing the controlling, sneering attitude Hoffman who was clearly biased, not even trying to hide his disdain for his blatant prejudice. Langella finds that space between becoming a caricature and going over-the-top to become a truly frightening presence on screen. History has not been kind to Hoffman and Langella spits his blistering orders of contempt so well, it will make you recoil.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the reluctant prosecutor, Richard Schultz, who was ordered by his boss, Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie), to pursue a federal conspiracy charge that came all the way from the top. John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, made clear what he and the President wanted. Gordon-Levitt, is subtle shows the conflict having to tamp down his conscience in order to advance his career.
Michael Keaton makes a brief, but powerful appearance as the former Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, who stands up for the rule of law, to no avail, in the face of Hoffman’s total disregard for fairness.
Sorkin uses archive footage from 1968 mixed with recreatiofrom those brutal riots to set the atmosphere of friction between the protestors and the “pigs”. Sorkin shoots the defendants talking in what they jokingly referred to as their “Conspiracy Office.” As they talk, Sorkin cuts to scenes of the violence. It’s a unique voiceover technique.
Sorkin also bares the personalities of some of his characters, especially Abbie Hoffman, as he performs like a stand up comedian in intimate setting, like the coffee houses on university campuses. Sorkin enhances Abbie Hoffman’s already known persona as a charismatic cult figure, poking fun at the social and political foibles of the time to explain his activism.
Sorkin intercuts archive footage with re-creations of the clash between the Yippies and the police at Grant Park which was brutal. But we noted his taking license with the real Chicago locations as we know them, which does not diminish the story of the trial.
Sorkin minces no words and keeps them coming. He’s a little heavy-handed, but creates a captivating piece of filmmaking guiding extraordinary performances. This is no love letter to the city of Chicago and Sorkin may not be getting the key to the city any time soon, but this film helps unlock our knowledge of a period in history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Turbulent times are here again. And this film reminds us that, “The whole world is watching.”
Netflix 2 hours 9 minutes R
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