Frank Langella

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

Captain Fantastic

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14/09/16

The ‘Captain’ of the title is Ben (Viggo Mortenson) a former hippie who now lives off grid in the wilds of North America with his six children. There, he drills them in a hard and uncompromising lifestyle, equal parts physical exercise, reading quality literature and discussing philosophy. Living in homemade tipis, the kids hunt deer, make music and wait for their mother to return from the hospital. She’s been there for several months, suffering from a bipolar disorder.

But then some terrible news arrives. She isn’t coming back. In the grip of depression, she has committed suicide. Of course, there must be a funeral, so Ben loads the kids onto his trusty bus, “Steve”, and heads for civilization. But what will Ben’s kids make of the ‘real’ world? How will they ever interact with kids whose idea of ‘the wild’ is based entirely on what they’ve seen in violent  video games.

This is an appealing, engaging film, wittily scripted by writer/director Matt Ross, and Viggo Mortenson excels in the lead role. Much of the humour here comes from the culture-clash between Ben’s feral offspring and the more sedate family members they encounter who cannot grasp what Ben has been doing with them. His major adversary is his father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) who clearly thinks he’s a prize asshole – which to some degree, he probably is, refusing to compromise on any of his dearly-held beliefs, even when he discovers that his eldest boy, Bo (a delightful performance from George MacKay), secretly longs to go to university, where he can experience something that he hasn’t merely read about in books.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the family’s wild lifestyle is perhaps too romanticised. Occasionally, their day-to-day existence resembles an improbable Eden, where the worst thing they can encounter is scratching themselves on a rock. But that’s a minor niggle – on the whole, this is hugely entertaining from start to finish. It’s probably worth the price of admission, just for the scene where Bo plights his troth to a teenage girl he meets on a campsite, working from ideas he’s encountered in classic fiction, while Ben’s oration at his late wife’s funeral is another toe-curling highlight.

Catch this before it escapes back into the wilds.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

All Good Things

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29/04/15

Here’s one I missed earlier. All Good Things was originally released in 2010 and it’s one of those ‘based on a true story’ films, so mind-bogglingly bonkers that it really only could be the truth.  Ryan Gosling plays David Marks (the name has been changed to protect the – allegedly – guilty), the older son of dodgy property magnate, Sanford Marks (Frank Langella). When we first meet David, in 1971, he’s determined to resist going into the family business and when he meets up with Katie (Kirsten Dunst) after popping round to mend her leaky pipes, they start a relationship. But as time moves on, Katie begins to appreciate that David has several unsavoury skeletons lurking in his cerebral closet (not least the fact that he witnessed his mother’s suicide) and when eventuality he’s forced to capitulate and go back to work for his domineering dad, it’s painfully clear that things are not going to end happily.

These days, Gosling is very much the sex symbol, but here he plays the moody, cross-dressing and decidedly repellent David with considerable aplomb (although the ‘old age’ makeup he’s forced to don for later scenes wouldn’t win any awards). The story covers a lengthy time period and takes in Katie’s mysterious disappearance and a couple of murders, while the script doesn’t hesitate to point the finger at the real life counterparts of these ‘fictional’ characters. All this may go to explain why the film had such a low key release – apparently there were many who were ready and willing to sue the production team. But director Andrew Jarecki (of Capturing the Friedmans fame) stuck to his guns and somehow managed to get it out there.

All Good Things is certainly worth catching, if only to marvel at the way in which ‘David’ managed to come out of the whole business with no more than eight months in jail. It tells an intriguing (and occasionally mind-blowing story and for the most part, tells it well.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney