Phil has decided to delve into American History, inspired by our ongoing watching of the Amazon TV series Hell on Wheels, which, incidentally, is brilliant. So when he was searching for a Thursday night movie he came across The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. It is a historical legal drama, and as it’s history you can have some spoilers 🙂
The plot regards a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters who are charged with conspiracy by crossing state lines with the intent to ferment rioting outside the Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago in 1968. The seven defendants come from different protest groups, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong) founding members of the Youth International Party known as yippies, Rennie Davis and David Dellinger (Alex Sharp and John Caroll Lynch) of the National Mobilization Committee to End The War in Vietnam known as MOBE, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, known as SDS, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) a teaching assistant at North Western University, and John Froines, a chemistry teacher from Vermont. Also in the dock as the 8th defendant was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) national chairman of the Black Panthers.
The movie starts with showing the defendants preparing to go to Chicago for the protest, introducing the characters and setting the scene for what’s to come. We then move on 5 months to the arrests and trial of the guys. We start out in the office of John N Mitchell, who becomes the 67th Attorney General of the USA (and is in real life subsequently banged up in jail for criminal activity during Watergate) who appoints the prosecution lawyers for the trial. Tom Foran (J.C.MacKenzie) Chief Federal Prosecutor and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) assistant federal prosecutor . The defendants, apart from Bobby Seale are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights and active member of the National Lawyers Guild and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) a defense council. The cast is topped off by Frank Langhella as Judge Julius Hoffman and it is patently obvious throughout the trial that he is favouring the prosecution and hindering the defense at every opportunity. Bobby Seale’s attorney Charles Garry is in hospital and can’t attend, and the judge tries to make Kunstler do the job, which neither Kunstler or Seale want.
The trial shows one episode of perfidy after another. The Judge removes jurors who seem to be sympathetic to the defendants, he issues several ‘contempt of courts’ to Kunstler and to the defendants, though Abbie Hoffman openly antagonises him. Various undercover cops and FBI agents testify, not always truthfully. Seale has been getting support from Fred Hampton,(Kelvin Harrison Jr) chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, who sits behind him and the Judge assumes he’s giving him legal advice but a few days later he is shot dead whilst asleep by a police raiding party. Seale keeps interrupting the proceedings to demand his constitutional rights, and the judge has him removed from court by the Marshalls, who beat him up, gag him and bind him to a chair before returning him to court. Both the defence and prosecution object to this so his case is declared a mistrial. In real life he ended up doing 4 years in jail for his ‘contempts of court’ issued by the judge.
Kunstler manages to get Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton) the Attorney General at the time of the riots to testify and he explains that he had declined to initiate prosecutions after the riots because of evidence that the Chicago Police Department instigated them. The judge won’t let the jury hear this testimony. We are shown in flashback in the night of the riot how the police removed their badges and started clubbing the defendants and anyone else in the vicinity.
So that should whet your appetite for this compelling courtroom drama, interspersed with flashbacks and real footage from the events portrayed.
This was a bit of history we knew very little about and having checked up the real stuff Sorkin didn’t mess around too much with the truth of it, just some re-arranging of the timeline to make it flow better, and a little bit of dramatic licence here and there. We couldn’t believe the binding and gagging of Seale had actually happened, in the movie that only lasts a few minutes but it really did happen and he was bound and gagged for a few days! Staggering! All in all it was a fascinating piece of work, and in spite of the seriousness there are some genuinely funny moments throughout. Cohen is perfect as the flippant Abbie Hoffman, and I say that with some chagrin as I have never liked him in anything at all until now. Mark Rylance never disappoints, and Redmayne, who can be a bit hit and miss is a definite hit in this. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does justice to Bobby Seale and Gordon-Levitt plays his part with dignity, but it’s a quiet performance for him. Frank Langhella is absolutely superb and you cannot help but be impressed with his ability to portray this partisan judge who is impossible to respect or like. There is an uplifting ending to the movie, but that’s a spoiler you can’t have because really you all should give this one a watch!
Fraggle rating: Top Notch!!
More real history for my Saturday night movie. Based on the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (2019) which was mired in controversy as although it was shot in Dublin in 2016, it became part of a legal battle between Mel Gibson (producer and star), Farhad Safina (director) and Voltage Pictures, delaying its release until 2019 and resulting in the pair disowning the final product. Still none of that matters in the watching of the movie so we’ll park that there.
The plot is about the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. Wait! What?? I hear you cry, where’s the action Fraggle?? this sound like the biggest bore ever!! Well dear reader, put aside those thoughts because this movie is quite fascinating. Again this is history so we can have a few spoilers I think.
We start out in another courtroom, this time in London in 1872, and where William Chester Minor,(Sean Penn) a retired United States Army surgeon, is on trial for the murder of George Merrett, an innocent stranger whomst he mistook for a Union soldier he once branded for desertion during the civil war, which we see in flashback. But Minor is batshit crazy so ‘sees’ this soldier at night and thinks he’s coming to get him. Although he is not found guilty, he is found insane and the judge committs him to Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital, where the head doctor Dr.Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) is in charge. Yes, Brayne really is his name as he was a real person. 😊
Then we move to Scotland where James Murray (Mel Gibson) is a teacher who has applied for the job of editor of what will become the Oxford English Dictionary and goes to Oxford for the interview. Murray is an autodidact who left school at the age of 14 without any qualifications but has taught himself loads of ancient and modern languages. The committee who interview him at the Oxford University Press are stuffy English chaps and would rather have someone with a degree, but Freddy Furnivall (Steve Coogan) an influential philologist (the study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning) is on his side and convinces the committee that as they are getting nowhere anyway, they might as well take a chance on Murray. The committee argue over the parameters of the task at a posh dinner. Max Mûller (Lars Brygmann) insists that it capture English at its current “purest peak” and setting strict rules for correct speech. Furnivell says that “all words are valid in the language. Ancient or new, obsolete or robust on, foreign born or homegrown. The book must inventory every word, every nuance, every twist of etymology and every possible illustrated citation from every English author. All of it or nothing at all.” That of course wins out, and is a daunting task for one man to take on. Murray comes up with a solution to enlist volunteers from anywhere in the English speaking world, and has fliers printed explaining what is wanted, that are placed in every book in every bookshop, libraries and newspapers, asking them to send their contributions on slips of paper to Murray. The slips pile up.
Back in Broadmoor, Minor, tormented by flashbacks from the civil war, saves the life of a guard whose leg has been trapped by a spiked gate, by amputating it. Brayne speaks with him to thank him and Minor asks that his army pension be given to Eliza Merrit (Natalie Dormer) who, since Minor shot her husband has had to turn to prostitution to feed her 6 kids. He also asks for his rare books to be given to him and some paints and an easel, which Brayne allows. Muncie,(Eddie Marsan) one of the prison guards, takes the letter and pension to Eliza, who at first refuses it, but after Muncie turns up at her house with food for a Christmas dinner, she changes her mind and accepts Minor’s support. Muncie and the guards give Minor a book for Christmas which has one of the fliers in it, and Minor decides he can help Murray out. He mails in 1000 slips, and writes to Murray to tell him to send him his most elusive words. Though he gives his address, he doesn’t mention that he’s a patient there. When Murray goes to visit him to thank him, he finds out, but it doesn’t stop the two from becoming great friends.
Eliza and Murray each visit Minor regularly, with Minor teaching Eliza how to read and write, but after Eliza kisses him one day, he goes a bit mental as he feels he’s killed her husband twice, so he chops off his willy in atonement. He sends his library to Murray and withdraws into himself. Brayne tries out some dodgy treatments on him which Muncie isn’t happy about.
Meanwhile back in Oxford, two of the committee, Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) and Philip Gell (Laurence Fox) are trying to have Murray removed, but Furnivall has some tricks up his sleeve and gets him the Royal Seal of Approval which can’t be taken from Murray. Murray and Eliza visit Minor against the wishes of Brayne, and Minor responds to Eliza. Murray and Furnivall get a hearing to have Minor released, but it goes against them, so Murray petitions Winston Churchill (Brendan Patricks) who was Home Secretary at the time, and though he can’t release Minor, he can and does have him deported back to the States.
Well that’s the gist of it, there’s a lot more in it obviously, and in spite of the controversy a really worthwhile watch. Helps if you like books and words though, which I do! Again actors I’m not usually keen on (Coogan, Penn) managed to impress the heck out of me, especially Penn who made his character sympathetic with every look in his eyes. Mel, well, he brought his Braveheart Scottish accent to the party, but it didn’t really bother me, he was really good in this. The scenes with Gibson and Penn were so compelling, and a lot of fun when they were playing with words. Likewise when Natalie Dormer was on screen, she is such an underated actress. I’ve seen her as Ann Boleyn in The Tudors, Margery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, and in Penny Dreadful:City of Angels in multiple roles, and she is an amazing actress, beautiful to look at and can adapt to anything she sets her cap at. I am surprised no-one gives her a meaty starring role in a movie, though she had a good part in this one. I must give a shout to Jennifer Ehle too as Murray’s 2nd wife Ada, not a huge part but she does a great job when she’s on screen.
So, to conclude, this was beautifully filmed, the acting was top notch, and the story fascinating and actually historically correct, (though maybe the kiss didn’t happen 😉 )
Fraggle Rating : Bloody Brilliant