Aaron Sorkin

Being the Ricardos

11/01/22

Amazon Prime Video

I am actually old enough to remember watching I Love Lucy as a child – and can recall laughing out loud at the onscreen antics – though a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that the show only launched in the year of my birth and ended in 1957, so I was probably already viewing re-runs. It was a game changer in many regards, the first scripted TV show to be filmed in front of a live audience using a (then) unique three-camera system. At the peak of its powers, it pulled in sixty million viewers.

Being the Ricardos is a fascinating look at the husband and wife duo on which the series was loosely based, as they approach a major flashpoint in their joint career. Midway through recording their second series, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are hit by potential disaster. Ball has been investigated (and cleared) by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the newspapers are now accusing her of being a communist. Also, she has just discovered she is pregnant with her second child and there’s no way her sponsors are going to allow a visibly pregnant woman onto the television screens, because viewers are going to start thinking about how she got pregnant in the first place and – well, not to put too fine a point upon it, her husband is Cuban…

I know. You could be forgiven for thinking that the series actually originated in the middle ages, but no, in the 1950s, such mundane revelations could stop a series dead in its tracks. So it’s going to take some nifty dance moves to get Lucy and Desi out of this one.

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin adopts a multi-faceted approach to telling his story, introducing it via a series of interviews with the show’s original writers and producer (all played by actors) and then cutting gleefully back and forth between Ball And Arnaz’s first meeting; their early experiences in radio, film and music; the recreation of the recording of a live show and all points in between.

We learn fairly quickly that Ball is an inveterate micro-manager, who trusts nobody’s instincts as much as her own, and that Arnaz is an astute businessman with an eye for self-preservation and a yen for booze, card games and female company. We also meet the duo’s regular co-stars, William Frawley (JK Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), whose careers are inextricably entwined with those of their employers, and who are not slow to express their dissatisfaction with the way they’re expected to play second fiddle. There’s also an appealing rivalry between the show’s two main writers, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy).

The script positively crackles with witty putdowns and snarky one-liners and Kidman’s performance (which has already been rewarded with a Golden Globe) is extraordinary, nailing Ball’s look, voice and presence in seemingly effortless fashion. Mind you, the cast are uniformly good and the era convincingly evoked. As the story switches expertly back and forth, no scene is allowed to outstay its welcome.

So much more than just another biopic, Being the Ricardos sneaked quietly straight onto Amazon Prime in the UK, but, with a strong Oscar buzz behind it, expect to hear a lot more about it in the days to come.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Trial of the Chicago 7

16/10/20

Netflix

Those people who despair about the current state of the judicial system in America should take a long, hard look at The Trial of the Chicago 7 – if only to remind themselves that it was just as rotten in the late 60s.

The titular trial is, of course, one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in relatively recent history, and here it is in all its shocking detail. Presented as fiction, this would inevitably raise eyebrows. The fact that it’s all true only intensifies the sense of shame the story generates. This is a damning narrative in the truest sense of the word.

It’s the story of a bunch of radicals who, in 1968, organised a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. On the night of the protest, a large contingent of the protesters were cornered by the police and subjected to a brutal physical assault. Many of the officers removed their identification before striking out with their batons.

The upshot should surely have been that the Chicago police were the ones on trial, but no such luck. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and four of their friends find themselves up before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a rampant hardliner who clearly deems them guilty on the length of their hair alone. Their crime? Hard to say, really. Obstructing police batons with their faces?

Just to complicate matters, Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is on trial alongside them, for no apparent reason other than he happened to be in Chicago on the same night. He has no legal representation in the court and, when he tries to speak for himself, he’s escorted outside, beaten, shackled and brought back in wearing a gag.

Think about that for a moment…

Writer/Director Aaron Sorkin has been working on this film for several years and it’s clearly a passion project. At first glance, some of the casting seems questionable but, as it turns out, Redmayne is perfectly convincing as Hayden, and Baron Cohen – hardly the go-to person for a credible acting performance – really captures the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, delivering what just might be his best film performance so far.

There are plenty of other sterling actors in smaller roles – Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton to name but three – and the era is reproduced in almost forensic detail. It’s evident that Sorkin has designed this as a salutary lesson, a plea for the USA to ditch the kind of values exhibited here.

Some of that will be decided in the upcoming Presidential election but, in the meantime, here’s a chilling testament to the iniquities of the law and a stark warning of what happens when the judiciary isn’t held to proper account.

Hard-hitting stuff.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

Molly’s Game

04/01/18

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin has certainly earned his stripes. From The West Wing to The Social Network, he’s proved his abilities as an ace screenwriter. For his directorial debut, he’s seized upon the real life story of Molly Bloom (not that Molly Bloom) portrayed here by Jessica Chastain on excellent form and based upon Bloom’s autobiography – which probably explains how she is be presented here as a bit of a saint, rather than the ruthless enabler she so clearly was.

The film opens with an extended voiceover that explains how Bloom’s youth is spent as a competitive downhill skier, schooled by her hard-assed father, Larry (Kevin Costner) and constantly in the shadow of her more successful brother, a downhill champion. When a terrible injury puts a premature end to her sporting ambitions, Bloom looks around for alternative forms of employment and more by accident than design, ends up helping to host a series of ‘slightly’ illegal poker games where celebrity players gamble (and generally lose) obscene amounts of money. When her boorish employer, Dean (Jeremy Strong) decides to cut her out of the games, she immediately sets up in competition with him, hiring swankier venues and stealing all of his regulars. From there, she goes all out to tempt in more affluent players. When, two years after quitting the business, she is arrested by the FBI she goes in search of a lawyer and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who despite his initial reluctance to represent her, is soon won over by Bloom’s charms… (Jaffey, by the way, isn’t a real character, but an invention, intended to represent the various lawyers she was associated with before coming to trial).

It’s perhaps inevitable that Sorkin the director fails to fully rein in Sorkin the writer – with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, Molly’s Game becomes somewhat lumpen in the middle section and could surely have lost half an hour in the editing suite. Furthermore, those viewers (like me) who know or care nothing about the rules of poker may find their attention wandering during these stretches – but the film gathers momentum as it heads into its final stretch and has me hooked to its conclusion.

Sorkin’s dialogue is as delicious as ever, but if there’s an overall problem here, it’s simply that it’s hard to sympathise with any of the major characters – Elba’s fictional one aside. The once cute Michael Cera (of Juno) is really unpleasant as the mysterious Player X and even the usually affable Chris O Dowd is irritating as perennial loser Douglas Downey. And no matter how eloquently Chastain plays that lead role, its hard to feel warmth for a woman who doesn’t think twice about exploiting the needs of gambling addicts in order to earn herself considerable sums of money.

In the end, Molly’s Game is watchable if flawed. Poker fans will doubtless see this as a royal flush, whereas to me it’s more like three of a kind.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney