Contrasting Cinema: “The Whole World Is Watching”

At The Movies

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The Trial of the Chicago 7
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the latest film version of one of America’s most bizarre federal trials: the charging of several anti-Vietnam War protesters for criminal conspiracy and incitement of riot during the 1968 Democratic Party convention, which was both a parody of justice and a singular show trial.  That trial has provided writer/director Aaron Sorkin with a great vehicle to bring it to the screen and inform recent generations (the film, available on Netflix, is rated “R” and runs a headlong 129 minutes).

Filmgoers might know some of the highlights of this five-month (September 1969 to March 1970) marathon process: the wildly disparate defendants (from the “Mobe,”  the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Yippies, the Black Panthers), the grotesque rulings of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the overall goofiness of the Yippies, the binding and gagging of Panther’s leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the blizzard of contempt citations against defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance)—the whole bloody mess. All this and much more is shown in the film, some of it taken from the trial and media records, but much of the story is Sorkin’s invention, especially the scenes showing the defendants and their lawyers holed up in a safe house discussing legal strategies and their own mixed motives. For added pace, the script also jettisons weeks and weeks of witnesses on both sides. Also, Sorkin creates a backstory for the young lead prosecutor,  Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), carrying out the wishes of Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman).

Sorkin has been in the courtroom before: his first movie script was the court martial drama, “A Few Good Men” (1992), also full of both legal tensions and a starry cast. While “A Few Good Men” was full-out drama,  the first half of “Chicago 7” has a jaunty, even ribald air, mainly through the antics of Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen).  One exemplary scene—which really happened—shows the two Yippies coming to court clad in judge’s robes, and when ordered to disrobe, they have on Chicago PD police  uniforms (whooping laughter!).  When the trial gets down to business, however, serious themes dominate, and the defendants’ cohesion—never stout—begins to fray.

You can count on Sorkin to deliver both flashy, smart exchanges as well as sheets of bristling monologue, and most of his cast handles these devices well. Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman as a learned jester, showing off moves as both a practicing comic as well as a courtroom wit. Jeremy Strong, as Rubin, is a merry prankster high on drugs while in court, and Eddie Redmayne, effective as Tom Hayden of SDS, personifies the earnest intellectual with an ethical fault which could ruin the 7’s case. Odd men out include Abdul-Mateen II as the rage-infused Seale, an uncompromising Panther, with the pacifist John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, a soft-spoken,  well-mannered adult among young radicals.

Another contrast balances Rylance, firm but restrained,  as the dogged liberal Kunstler,  a measured soul trying to keep his unruly clients in line, and  Gordon-Levitt as Schultz, a bright and committed federal prosecutor who comes to question his own government’s case.  In his own wacky world is the florid, almost baroque, Langella the judge, a specter of a legal mind unhinged, lost in an authoritarian world of his own making.  These actors and other fine featured players, give their best in serving Sorkin’s intricate and utterly entertaining words.

Jackie Chung (left) and Justin Chon play mother and son in “Coming Home Again.” Photo courtesy of Outsider Pictures.

Coming Home Again
Hong-Kong born director Wayne Wang has had an intriguing career, starting with a breakthrough comedy Chan Is Missing” (1982).  He earned  international fame with the ambitious “Joy Luck Club” (1993), and,  sought after by Hollywood, he came to direct some mainstream Hollywood productions like “Maid in Manhattan” (2002) and “Last Holiday”(2006).   More recently, he has returned to more personal, independent pictures, like the just released “Coming Home Again.” Based on a New Yorker essay by award-winning Korean-American writer Chang-rae Lee, this intimate family drama about a mother, a son, and the burden of family expectations, world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is now streaming in the Washington, DC area (the film runs 86 minutes and is not rated, though it contains nothing objectionable).

The film takes place over one full day (though leavened by flashbacks), during which Chang-rae (Justin Chon), a first generation Korean-American, has returned to his family home in San Francisco to prepare the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner.  He also has taken on the task of caring for his ailing mother (Jackie Chung), suffering fatal stomach cancer.  He wants to fulfill his role as the supportive son, but he must come to terms with his own conflicted emotions. His father (John Lie) is also present in the apartment but appears as a fugitive figure, little engaged with his wife’s care.

The food preparation in the film forms the symbolic sinew between Chang-rae and his mother, a meal exquisitely prepared that signals how much he cares for her and how much he owes her. (Fans of Asian cooking movies will be reminded-–with mouths watering–of films like “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” and “Juro Dreams of Sushi,” ). Note: for this film, the food was prepared by Korean-American master chef Corey Lee from a noted San Francisco restaurant. The care and precision of the food prep also gives the young man time to reflect on the intense relationship between him and his mother..

The arrival of Chang-rae’s younger sister (July Kim) for the holiday introduces another family dynamic, as she cannot accept her father’s verdict that Mom has little time left and no desire to accept more painful cancer treatments. She challenges her mother about her intentions in an exquisite, agonized sequence made all the more touching by being shown in a fixed longshot with only murmured dialogue. That bedside scene is  one of many quiet, perfectly centered shots by Wang framing the apartment in images so reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

The overall reticence of the film is so strong that certain disruptive events at the quiet family dinner ring out like thunder claps.  I would expect many viewers would find “Coming Home Again” just too slow and restrained.  Yet, the film’s restraint appropriately represents the culture it portrays, which, together with a most effective cast, offers patient filmgoers much to admire.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.