With his new courtroom ensemble “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix, 2020, 130 min.), writer-director Aaron Sorkin returns to the genre that made him famous, having written the play and screenplay for the iconic “A Few Good Men” (1992). Made now, after four years of Trump’s insanity, Sorkin looks back on another crazy moment in American history that reflects back on where we are today. The film follows the Chicago 7, a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It’s a movie, not a court transcript, and I would not take its drama as gospel, but it’s a tale that needs telling.
The seven defendants are Yippie founding members Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); SDS President Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne); SDS national community organizer Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); MOBE leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins); and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty). There’s an eighth defendant as well: Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, who famously refused council because his lawyer was unavailable.
I would not have thought of Cohen for Hoffman, but it turns out to be the kind of inspired casting that sets the tone for the whole film; Cohen and Strong are like a hippie comedy team at times, and yet we see who they really are behind the schtick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Frank Langella have important roles as Prosecutor and Judge here, as well as a big movie star cameo that I will not spoil. The real scene stealer here is the protean Mark Rylance as Defense Counsel William Kunstler, the rock-star lawyer of his time.
This is a big, busy and almost riotous courtroom drama with many great moments of “Did that really happen?” absurdity. As such, it reminded me of the insane courtroom sequences in Miloš Forman’s “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” (1996). A double bill might be in order as we move forward…
Josh Trank’s “Capone” (Redbox and Vertical Entertainment, 2020, 104 min.), starring Tom Hardy (“Dunkirk” ) in the title role, is a character study without any character. Considering that Al Capone is one of the most popular, notorious and well-known historical figures of the 20th century, it’s a shame how little happens in “Capone.” The film chooses to focus on the final days of Capone’s life, sprung from an 11-year sentence in Atlanta Penitentiary, sick and addled from neurosyphilis and dementia, lurching around his palatial Florida estate.
Hardy’s showing, mumbling performance is emblematic of the problems with the film’s dramatic structure. Sporting fine suits and a scarily realistic horseshoe-shaped scar on his face, Hardy is all dressed up with nowhere to go. It’s all much muttering about nothing. And poor Linda Cardellini had better beware; with this film and “The Founder” (2016), this talented actress is in danger of being typecast as the Obligatory Biopic Wife.
Unfortunately, nothing happens of note or interest for 104 minutes. Over and over again, Trank sets up stories and characters that never go anywhere. There’s a lot of interest in Capone’s financing, but it all ends in a shrug. Matt Dillon plays a composite character based on Capone’s partners in crime who shows up to visit, but may in fact be a ghost. Why? Who cares?
If you’re really interested in well-made dramas about the life of Al Capone, you’d be better off watching Steven Graham, who etches a convincing and affecting portrait of Capone over the course of the run of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014). Then there’s Brian DePalma’s muscular, John Ford-like remake of “The Untouchables” (1987), featuring a very entertaining and theatrical turn by Robert DeNiro. Jason Robards isn’t much of a physical match for Capone in Roger Corman’s “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (1967), but he and the film are still more entertaining and engaging than anything that threatens to happen in this new “Capone.”