The Trial of the Chicago 7

I was a bit worried about this movie when I first heard about it, since both Aaron Sorkin (who wrote and directed) and lead actor Sacha Baron Cohen can sometimes be over the top. 

I needn’t have worried.  Sorkin for the most part stays close to the record, letting this history speak for itself.  The mishandling of the trial by Judge Hoffman is amply documented, right down to his pique about sharing a last name with one of the defendants.  His bias in favor of the government was so blatant that it formed the basis for a successful appeal.  Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Bobby Seale, the lone black defendant, was particularly appalling, and yet, not all that surprising.  Abbie Hoffman’s stunts during the trial, both inside and outside the courtroom, are also amply documented, although the Yiddish epithets he threw at the judge were, sadly, not in the movie.

One of the movie’s few false notes comes near the end, when Sorkin has one of the defendants deliver a stirring tribute to the fallen in Vietnam.  This never happened – an attempt was made during the trial to deliver such a statement, but the judge didn’t allow it. 

The defendants were actually permitted to make statements after sentencing, and several of the defendants made moving pleas for racial justice.  It’s not so well remembered now, but by the late 1960s the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were coalescing.  It was lost on nobody that the war was disproportionately being fought by non-elites, of whatever color.  The back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy stalled that effort – we will never know what the partnership of those two men would have accomplished.  I wish Sorkin had left that in. 

Sacha Baron Cohen does a fantastic job as Abbie Hoffman, capturing his essence if not his accent.  The outstanding supporting cast, which includes many (Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella) who are leading men in their own right, operate as the kind of ensemble you sometimes see in a high quality theatrical production, but rarely in a Hollywood film.

There’s an imaginary scene towards the end in which Eddie Redmayne, playing Tom Hayden, lectures Abbie Hoffman about his tactics, favoring working within the system to Hoffman’s publicity stunts.  This scene sounds more like Sorkin than Hayden, who wasn’t quite the choir boy he is portrayed here. According to Hayden/Sorkin, Hoffman’s tactics would discredit the left for a generation.

I think Sorkin is wrong here.  Hoffman was a publicity hound and loved his stunts. But he was not a fraud.  He truly believed that publicity stunts were the best way t force people to pay attention to things that they were determined to ignore.  I think history has shown that Hoffman got the better of that argument.  As Hoffman himself said, shortly before he died by his own hand in 1989, “We were young.  We were reckless.   But we were right.”

Counterpart

Counterpart is an interesting program, but halfway through, I’m not yet sure if it’s a good one.

JK Simmons, who’s had a lifetime toiling in semi-obscurity in supporting roles, really shines as the lead here, playing a man who has to deal with the “counterpart” version of himself in a parallel universe to avoid catastrophe.  They both married the same woman – one marriage was happy, the other not – and the two characters differ in other ways that are more difficult to discern.

The supporting cast is really strong here – In particular, Liv Lisa Fries (the female lead In Babylon Berlin) makes the most of her small part.  But many of the characters seem underwritten, and the science fiction plot too often veers from the merely impossible to the ludicrously implausible.

The series does have some interesting things to say about what differentiates  us as human beings.  What makes two characters with identical genetic profiles seem so different – life experiences, world events, or just chance encounters with other people?  Why does one counterpart like poetry, while the other can’t be bothered? And despite all these differences, are the two counterparts in some fundamental way nevertheless the same?   It’s thought provoking, and you might find it worth watching, despite its flaws.

Originally produced for Starz, it’s now streaming for free On Amazon Prime.

Midnight Diner (Tokyo Stories)

A one-man diner open only from midnight to 7 am, offering solace to folks with late night jobs or who, for some reason or other, don’t want to go home.  There is only one dish on the menu, but the chef will make anything, including some surprising dishes that usually turn out to have some connection to a customer’s life.

This is apparently a long running series in Japan, and it has a very different feel than Japanese programs made for an international audience.  It features characters in jobs not usually showcased in international productions – porn actors, exotic dancers, boxers – depicted with grace and humanity.  Some of the stories end well, some don’t, but they all have an emotional honesty that is rarer than it should be on commercial TV.

Episodes are only half an hour, but some of them are so emotionally intense i found it hard to watch more than two at a time.  In Japanese with English subtitles.

On Netflix.

Upload

This show about a world where the dying upload their consciousness into a virtual reality was a pleasant surprise.  It’s funny without being stupid, bitingly satirical but cutting with baby teeth, and occasionally serious without hitting you over the head with whatever point they are trying to make.  This was apparently adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story, but it’s not as dystopian as his work usually is.  The two main characters are very appealing, and the villains are more ridiculous than evil.

One season, on Amazon Prime.  A second season has already been ordered.

Dark (season 3)

This show, which started as a story about a pattern of missing children in a downmarket German town, quickly morphed into a very unusual type of time travel story:  Back to the Future meets Twin Peaks.  Like many time travel stories, the relationships between the characters and the timing of events gets very complicated – this is not a show you can watch with half an eye and hope to follow what’s going on. And, while most time travel stories work overtime to avoid time travel paradoxes, this show embraces them – people are forever meeting with other versions of themselves.

I enjoyed the excursions into German cultural history, from the devastation of the immediate post war years, to the hopeful 1980s, to the apprehensive present. And although the ending came out of left field, I thought it tied up the storylines pretty well.

Three seasons, on Netflix.

Tales from the Loop

A small town in the Midwest is home to an underground factory, called The Loop, whose function is unclear.  The factory is the town’s major employer, and there is no suggestion that the work the factory is doing is ever malevolent, just strange.  So most people just ignore the odd bits of discarded machinery littered around the town’s outskirts.

The series is classified as “science fiction,” and many of the episodes are indeed based on common science fiction themes:  time travel, parallel universes, humanlike androids.  But there is no “man vs. technology” subtext to any of these stories, and they offer neither a wholly optimistic nor wholly dystopian view of the future. Instead, each episode is a little meditation on how a particular bit of technology might actually affect how you lived your life.   If you could switch bodies with another person, what if one of you didn’t want to switch back?  If you could stop time, what would you do, once you stopped having sex all the time?  If you could meet your alter ego in another universe, what would you say?  It’s a very old, almost 19th C definition of science fiction, where the important thing is not the technology itself, but how people react to it.

And there are no easy resolutions here.  Some decisions can be undone, but others have permanent consequences.  Nothing is ever back the same as it was.

Each episode tells an independent story of a different character, although the stories are interlocked – minor characters in one episode may feature prominently in another.   The episodes are told sequentially, and there is an ending of sorts.  But many questions remain unanswered.

This series reminded me of The Leftovers, which ran a few years ago on HBO.  Although several possibilities were presented, we never learned definitively why 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared – that series, like this one, was content to “let the mystery be.”

The Loop episodes vary in quality, and some of the early ones are very slow.  If you binge watch them over a short period of time, you will gradually be drawn into the fictional world and the episodes become more rewarding (especially the last one).

On Amazon Prime

The Plot Against America

This plausibly implausible counter factual imagines an America where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR on an isolationist platform.  Lindbergh stops sending military aid to the British and sends it to Germany instead.  He makes nice with prominent American Jews, but he also appoints the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford to the Cabinet and invites Ribbentrop to the White House.  But he keeps America out of the war, which keeps his poll ratings high.

American Jews are then faced with an extraordinarily fraught set of choices. Should they actively cooperate, or passively resist? Should they move to Canada?  Or should they just keep their heads down and hope for the best?

I’m not a huge fan of Phillip Roth novels generally, but the characters he created for this story, based in some cases on his own family, are complex and interesting.  David Simon and Ed Burns, the guys who created The Wire, really know how to tell a story.  The combination makes for a very satisfying series.

Although the book was told primarily through the eyes of a young boy named Phillip, the author’s alter-ego, the show runners were smart enough to tell the story through multiple points of view.  The soul of the TV series turns out to be Bess, Phillip’s mother, who doesn’t lose her moral compass in the face of government pressure to do otherwise.  (In an interesting bit of karmic casting, the actress who plays Bess, Zoe Kazan, is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, the Hollywood director who in real life made somewhat different choices).

One of the most interesting, and simultaneously disturbing, things about watching this series is the way it presents America of the 1940s as both comfortably familiar and shockingly different.  We all grew up with the story of a United States in which people of all races, colors and creeds, united by a foreign attack, joined together to defeat evil dictators and save the world. But in a world where Pearl Harbor never happened, things didn’t work out that way.  America remained fragmented and polarized, in a way it perhaps It has never stopped being.

Perhaps that’s why the show runners ditched the novel’s artificially happy ending (where everything gets back on track) for a more ambiguous one. That’s appropriate, I think.  Some decisions can be undone, but others have permanent consequences.  Nothing is ever back the same as it was.

The first two episodes of this 6-part series are a bit slow, as all the characters are introduced and their story lines set up.  Starting with Episode 3, the series picks up the pace, and doesn’t let up until the end.

On HBO.

Giri / Haji

This 8-part series about a Japanese cop sent to London to investigate a Yakuza-connected murder sounds like a police procedural, but it quickly morphs into something else.  Part crime story, part family drama, part romantic comedy with a dash of absurdist ballet – I don’t know how to characterize it, but I liked it.  The characters are interesting, the performances are good, and the ending is suitably unsettled.  Check it out.

On Netflix.

1917

This combat drama set in the trenches of WWI tells the story of two messengers sent on a nearly impossible mission to the front line in an attempt to abort a disastrous attack.  Rarely if ever have the realities of that war on the ground been so explicitly portrayed.  And the innovative “one-take” format creates its own drama, pushing the two men forward from one horrible obstacle to the next.

The film will probably win a well-deserved Oscar for cinematography. It might also win best picture, as everybody’s safe second choice.

And yet it left me cold.  The main characters had no scripted backstory (and the actors lacked the talent to suggest one).  So there was little emotional connection when bad stuff happened – or even when something good did.

It was also, in this day and age, a bit surprising to see every one of the German soldiers portrayed as heartless monsters.  In any war, some soldiers behave better than others.  Atrocities occur, but they are rarely committed 100% by one side.  Without any nuance in the portrayal of the enemy, you might as well be showing a video game with zombies.  What you’re left with is horror porn, not a film with anything serious to say about the horrors of war.

The 1981 movie Gallipoli , directed by Australian director Peter Weir and featuring a very young Mel Gibson in his first major role, told a similar story of two young messengers on a doomed mission.  I’m sure the cinematography wasn’t as good.  But it was a better movie.

Occupied (season 3)

I really liked the first two seasons of this program which charts the fate of Norway following a “soft” occupation by Russia.  The range of reactions to the Russian occupation (active or passive resistance, cooperation, escape) obviously mirrors the Norwegian experience in WWII, but the program is none the worse for that.  And the picture it provides of contemporary Norway, with women in senior roles, an emerging minority population, and strong democratic institutions, is fascinating.

I think the show was a success, which is probably why they greenlit a third season, which deals with the aftermath of the end of the Russian incursion.  That story line probably owes a lot to the Norwegian experience too – do you punish the “collaborators” or pretend nothing has happened?  The writers haven’t done as good a job here setting out the moral issues – you know something has gone wrong when you wind up rooting for the “bad guys.”

My advice – watch the first two seasons, which chart a complete story, and comes to a satisfying (although bittersweet) ending.

On Netflix.