Issue #44: And The Winner Is...🏆
The Trial of the Chicago 7 + The Father
There’s no way we could let the Academy Awards pass us by without comment. We don’t need to tell you that this has been a *weird year* for movies. The pandemic delivered a crushing blow to the usual distribution model for movies, and that has meant that even the Oscars had to make some adjustments. This year’s ceremony is happening a year and four months after the last one, but thankfully, there are still lots of excellent movies that came out this year. And they’re all deserving of recognition!
So this week, we’ve got two reviews of films from this year’s Best Picture race. First, Zosha on the trials of The Trial of the Chicago 7. Then, Cate waxes poetic about the disorienting beauty of The Father.
The ceremony is in two short days. We can’t wait to get a little wine drunk and ogle celebrities again. Here’s hoping!
Zosha on The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin is reliable. The man can find the proper screenwriting beats on his way out of a paper bag, and put them to swelling music to boot. His work is continuously questioning the norm of authority — who gets it, how, and why do we let them keep it? So perhaps that’s what makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 such a ludicrous dud; it is innately Sorkin, through and through.
I will say that it has its strong parts (again, as Sorkin always does). Following the real life story of the eight (yes) people arrested for their involvement in the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, we see the political trial in full swing. As Trial of the Chicago 7 is often quick to note, the trial is a farce, a way for the U.S. government to score a cheap win one way or another. These men are not “ringleaders,” merely scapegoats. It’s here where Sorkin’s instincts shine the brightest: injustice is the backbone of all his major works — A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network, and even Molly’s Game seriously study the weight of unjustness when it is applied haphazardly.
So it’s no surprise that the moments when Trial is most successful are the ones where it is taking seriously the weight of the eight accused men (if you’re scratching your head: eight men were charged, but Bobby Seale’s case was eventually separated and dropped). I am most certainly not talking about the tirade Tom Hayden goes on condemning the antics of “less serious” protesters; it’s actually when said protesters — Abbie Hoffman — tells political reporters that he is prepared to die for the cause, should it come to it, that most interests me. It’s rare to see a film take activism this profoundly, not as either a stoner mentality or mere rabble rousing; in an even lesser film, an answer like this would be treated like a punchline, rather than the very solemn oath to arms it is.
And yet, time and time again the characters are then defanged by Sorkin’s own writing. For every beat that the courtroom drama meshes together you can feel Sorkin’s hand tinkering and twisting to make the narrative more suitable to him. Richard Schultz (the opposing prosecutor played here by Joseph Gordon Levitt) was not only not embarrassed by the prosecution, he says he felt “precisely the opposite.” I know this may seem like nitpicking, but I think these changes matter profoundly — this was not a prosecutor who objected to Seale being brought to court bound and gagged; Seale’s ordeal went on for days, to much larger extremes. The line in cinema between portraying and fetishizing abuse of Black people is gossamer thin, but it seems like an odd over-simplification to paper over a fact of history with a white savior.
Sorkin’s greatest strength — his determination to have his characters talk and reason their way out of any problem — is also his greatest weakness, particularly as applied in Trial. What should be the setting for a real showdown of ideas becomes pat, rote, and simplistic at every turn. Sorkin is so intent on history as allegory for modern day, that he contorts real life motivations to suit his framing devices over and over until he has essentially torn them to shreds, where he’s not outright fabricating events. Jerry Rubin did not save a woman from sexual assault in the midst of a clash with the police, and frankly the introduction of such sexualized violence is disturbing. The activists’ perspectives are shifted so they can better bowl each other over, when in reality they were not nearly so different. The government can be guilty of great cruelty, but only so long as we are sure to see the well-placed, sympathetic man who stands in “conviction” alongside the convicted. One has a sense of his internal connection and bias at every turn, honoring these men’s valor and yet distancing the film from them at the same time. Sorkin wants history to be easy to watch, easier to digest, and makes both sides seem utterly toothless in the process.
People are of different minds on this, but I am of the opinion that historical fiction should change things in the goal of making the story more interesting; maybe a few months have to be crunched together, or a subtle change in motivation elides what would otherwise be a lesser character beat. But it should absolutely never be used simply to make a story more palatable, particularly when the whole point of the thing was that these men were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their cause. By scrambling their words, their ethics, and their beliefs, Sorkin has done the very thing the film purported to fix.
In the end, the only thing Sorkin can dream for these men is that we as an audience still leave appreciating America as a country and an institution. As Trial of the Chicago 7 tells it, these men had the only sane response to an insane world, and we were lucky to have them stand for it. If only he were brave enough to shut up and let them talk.
Cate on The Father
It’s hard to talk about how exquisite The Father is without tipping into exaggeration. Led by Anthony Hopkins in the titular role and Olivia Colman as his daughter, the story explores the experience of dementia in an innovative and unsettling way. A mystifying puzzle box with no answer, The Father is a film that both shows and tells to devastating effect.
The first thing that comes into focus is the setting. Anthony (Hopkins) is tottering around a beautiful London apartment and discussing a recent row over a caregiver with his daughter Anne (Colman). As they move about the home’s beautifully decorated rooms, a particular style emerges—midcentury modern, complete with richly toned furniture and decor. Everything has its place and Anthony is married to the way things are. The film paints a fairly simple picture of an aging father and his put-upon daughter.
But suddenly, the landscape shifts. Decorations have been moved or disappear entirely. Entire rooms have been redecorated. Kitchen cabinets have been replaced. The apartment is no longer his own. And the way this information is conveyed to the audience is so dizzying as to have the makings of a horror film. Hopkins’ confusion and disorientation come through not just in his face but in his body language, signaling to the audience that some imperceptible shift has taken place. It is then that the stakes become clear.
Throughout the film, Anthony’s perceptions of time and place are distorted in such a way that even the audience is left unsure of what is real and what is delusion. Anne returns from a shopping trip with a different face, and her ex-husband Paul reappears, somehow still her husband and abusive as ever. A new caregiver comes in to cover for the last, looking curiously like the younger daughter he sorely misses. But what makes the film cohere is the promise of a reassurance that never comes. Audiences will languish, tying themselves in knots trying to make sense of a timeline that does not make sense because it is never meant to. In an imitation of the experience of dementia, there is nothing that they can trust is real.
Director Florian Zeller makes light work of this adaption of his play, using the camera to recreate the claustrophobia and uncertainty of relying on an uncertain mind. Most of the film takes place in the various rooms of the same, slightly modified apartment. Zeller uses tight shots to both root the audience in a specific place and deceive them about its nature. No concessions are made to provide viewers with an easy understanding of the rooms in which Anthony spends his time. He is confused and perplexed and therefore so are we.
But there’s just enough chaos funneled into the equation to raise questions that will keep you guessing at a resolution. The film alternates between Anthony and Anne’s perspectives but does not use this shifting viewpoint to clarify what came before. Instead, the story folds back onto itself, retelling the same events from varying angles, examining them anew, and catching the characters in a time loop constructed from distorted memory. One might even feel gaslit by how unsteady the story feels, as though built upon quicksand. Whose story is this? When, how, why does it happen? Which daughter has died? And why is Anne so desperately sad? It all builds to a crescendo so moving and deeply felt that it’s little wonder the film has racked up so many Oscar nominations.
The Father does not promise to tell an easy story, but it does deliver on a narrative that challenges its viewers to put themselves wholly into the mind of its protagonist. Whether they choose to continue on with the journey is up to them.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: What to do about the way buildings look? On Them and white ghosts. The Muppet Show vs. Disney’s Muppets. The latest fiction nibble from a great writer. What to do with therapy apps. Rutherford Falls tells the greatest story never told.
CATE: Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS empire, all our bad fashion is coming back to haunt us, sometimes you have to say fuck it and heckle your friends, Crash has rotted our brains, on Them and black pain, heteropessimism explained, languishing in quarantine, and celebrity friends: just like us!
Next week, it’s our birthday 🎉. We’re so excited to celebrate one year of yelling about movies with you. So prep some bubbly. And remember, we love compliments and flattery, so send those our way too.