When Aaron Sorkin was summoned 14 years ago by Steven Spielberg, it was to script a movie Spielberg would direct based on the notorious Trial of the Chicago 7. These defendants were the most visible anti-war protestors at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention who were attacked and brutally beaten by police and the National Guard – on national television! Then in 1969 under the newly-elected and vindictive Nixon Administration they were indicted and tried for conspiring to incite riots. That was more than Sorkin knew at that meeting with the filmmaker whose reality-inspired pictures include ‘Lincoln,’ ‘The Post’ and ‘Schindler’s List.’
‘As soon as I left I called my father. I didn’t know a thing about who the Chicago 7 was. I had to go to school on this,’ Sorkin said during a recent Zoom press conference. That research meant, ‘A dozen books, the trial transcripts and I got to spend time with Tom Hayden [perhaps the most famous of the 7 defendants] who passed away four years ago. It organized itself into three stories: The courtroom drama, the peaceful protest that turned into a violent encounter with the National Guard and the personal story of Tom and Abbie Hoffman [the most colorful defendant, a hippie who created the yippies] who can’t stand each other and each thinks the other is doing harm to the [anti-war] movement. But they come to respect each other.’
When Sorkin submitted his first draft, he was blocked from continuing by politics. ‘The next day was the writer’s strike. That was the beginning of the film just getting kicked down the road for a while. Until two things happened at once. One was Donald Trump getting elected. He was at big rallies and said of protesters, ‘In the old days they would be carried out in stretchers.’ He was nostalgic for 1968.’ ‘Trial’ revived as a Go project although Spielberg was no longer in the director’s seat, Sorkin was. And this historical event was suddenly no longer a remote story of long ago but unexpectedly a relevant echo for today: ‘We didn’t change it to get more relevant but obviously it did. The protests – and seeing tear gas again and nightsticks and this time Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley — we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was shocking. I’ve been asked a few times in the last few weeks if I changed the script to mirror today. The answer is: Not a word. Events changed to mirror the script. But before a movie can be a revelation, a provocation or persuasive, it just has to be a good movie. It has to go well with a bucket of popcorn and that is not at all a modest goal: Making a film people enjoy. That’s what I was thinking about the whole time, just the audience experience. I feel the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.’
Q: You’re famous for courtroom scenes like ‘A Few Good Men.’ What about the courtroom scenes here?
AARON SORKIN: I’ve loved courtroom dramas since I was a little kid. So you did have to think about the rules of courtroom drama. What makes them good? Except for a couple of witnesses — Ramsey Clark [President Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General who investigated and declined to prosecute] and Abbie [Hoffman], those scenes live in the coverage. We want absolutely to see the power of Bobby [Seale, the Black Panther defendant whose removal from the trial made it the Chicago 7] when the judge is handling down some preposterous ruling.
Q: What kind of fiction is tolerable when you’re dramatizing historical events for entertainment?
AS: That’s a great question which you say any time you’re writing nonfiction. I’ve done nonfiction before, with ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Moneyball,’ ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘Molly’s Game.’ Every writer has an internal compass they use. You understand going in that there is a difference between what you’re doing and journalism. Just like there is a difference between a painting and a photograph — and what you’re doing is a painting. This is a trial that lasted almost six months and obviously you can’t put that onscreen. Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic as movie courtroom scenes. So you need to do that but not while perverting important truth. You have to decide – your inner compass I was talking about, has to decide what is an important truth and what is an unimportant truth. By the way if your internal compass is broken the studios will be happy to help you out! [He’s kidding!]
I’ll give you an example. Not from this movie. But it’s the best example I can think of. It’s an example from ‘The Social Network.’ Second scene in ‘Social Network’ Mark [Zuckerberg] has had this very bad date with Rooney Mara and he’s angry and he’s in full mode and he wants to start blogging. In the script I have him come in, power up his computer, leave the frame. His hand comes back in the frame with a glass. Ice spills in the glass, vodka goes in the glass, orange juice goes in the glass. He begins blogging. We know – or I know– from his blog that night that he was drunk. He tells us that he was drunk. He says, ‘So what if I’m inebriated on a Tuesday night at 9:03?’ About a week before shooting started we found out that he was drinking beer. In fact, Beck’s to be specific. David Fincher [the director] said, ‘Aaron we have to change it. I argued, No, no, no. This isn’t an important choice. I wouldn’t have him shoot up heroin or do a line of cocaine. But he is drinking to get drunk and the vodka and orange juice is just more cinematic. What I just described to you is more cinematic than popping open a bottle of beer. Which also doesn’t necessarily read as he’s drinking to get drunk. Just because you’re a college kid on a Tuesday night having a beer. I lost that argument. David was, If we know it to be true, we have to do it. But that’s the kind of thing where I feel like it’s a painting. It’s not a photograph. And it’s better to tell that story with vodka and orange juice. I respect any one who disagrees with me. But I can tell you that in this film, obviously dialogue is invented. People don’t speak in dialogue. People’s lives don’t play out in a series of scenes that form a narrative. That’s something that writers do. What I wouldn’t change was any of the exchanges between the judge and Bobby Seale. First of all, you didn’t need to. I consider it sacred ground. You don’t need to gussy it up at all. But you know this is a true story.
Q: Can you talk about using a combination of original and archival footage for the riot scenes?
AS: That was something we knew we were doing going in. Listen, one of the reasons the film took so long to get made was the budget. The riots were budget busters [because it was going to be too expensive]. Those riots were just killing everybody. When Steven said to me, ‘You’re directing it,’ the implication was ‘The riots are yours. Figure them out.’ I want to point out the entire cast worked for scale. The way we were going to accomplish the riots is if I could get a pair of eyes very close before a nightstick or a tear gas canister and with those tight shots figure out a way to get just a few wide shots, we could cleverly mix our tight shots with archival footage and make a piece of drama. When you’re doing something that’s a budget necessity the goal is to look like you had an unlimited budget. The great break was we could film in Grant Park and that allowed us to mix our footage. Also I don’t want to be glib but the tear gas helped.
Q: Could you talk about the liberties you took with production design?
AS: The real courtroom wasn’t an impressive room. It kinda looked like a junior high school multipurpose room, like the O.J. courtroom. There needed to be big windows so we could get shadows, weather out the window. I wanted it to feel big and imposing in the kingdom Frank Langella [as Judge Hoffman] was ruling. I wanted it packed with 40 extras every day.
Q: What were your biggest revelations doing research?
AS: Some of it was the testimony. By revelation if you mean shock, the biggest shock to me was what happened to Bobby [Seale who was forcibly gagged, handcuffed and tied to his chair for being disruptive]. The second was the judge not allowing the jury to hear Ramsey Clark’s testimony. He was the former Attorney General when this happened who said, ‘We investigated and found that the police started the riot’ – and not to let the jury hear that!?
CHRISTIANITY & MIRACLES There are 70,000 reasons why Portugal’s Marian shrine in the small town of Fatima is the most famous in a world where visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary are not uncommon. As the reverent biopic ‘Fatima’ (DVD, Universal, PG-13) recounts, on Oct. 3, 1917, as three peasant children – 10 year old Lucia and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco – had their final ‘encounter’ with the Mother of Christ, they were surrounded by 70,000 pilgrims and the news media. What they saw in the heavens is now called ‘Miracle of the Sun’ and became a world-wide news story, documented on newsreels.
Hollywood’s classic 1943 ‘The Song of Bernadette’ tells of another Marian vision in 19th century France’s small village of Lourdes where healing waters continue to attract pilgrims. ‘Fatima’ does not have the heft and remarkable reality of ‘Bernadette’ but it easily blends 21st century skepticism in the person of Harvey Keitel’s academic while fully endorsing the visions the children saw and heard over 6 months as WWI raged on. ‘Pray for peace,’ the Virgin tells the children. “Pray the rosary.’ Those lessons are still being taught. Brazilian superstar Sonia Braga plays the elderly Lucia who continued to have visions and lived as a cloistered nun. Her two cousins died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Lucia was 97 when she passed in February 2005. The many Bonus features include Andrea Bocelli’s singing ‘Gratia Plena,’ director Marco Pontecorvo’s vision for this piece, a profile of the child actors and featurettes on the set and costume design.
SUPERIOR SCI-FI A sleeper smash and highly influential, the South African-set ‘District 9’ (4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital, TriStar Pictures, R) seemingly came out of Nowhere to become a global success. Imaginative and original ‘District 9,’ as sci-fi so often does, made pointed observations about race relations as aliens land and are quickly exiled to a Johannesburg slum. Directed and co-written by Neil Blomkamp and now in 4K UltraHD, ‘District 9’ remains a landmark. One that, like Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien,’ stands the test of time.
ROCK, JAZZ, COUNTRY &THE WHITE HOUSE Everyone knows music has the power to move people emotionally, even spiritually. What makes ‘Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President’ (DVD, Greenwich, Not Rated) so entertaining is the way it observes how the underdog 1976 Presidential candidate cannily used country superstars to attract young voters and how Carter’s strong stance on racial justice was essential to his appeal with rock, country and jazz fans.
In Georgia Carter had beaten an out and proud segregationist for the governorship. When he was in the White House as this doc shows, the cozy presidential concerts he presented offered an eclectic roster of musical acts that were introduced to a national audience. Interviews with Carter, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Gregg Allman.
A CONCERT FOR THE AGES A global influencer for electronic music, Japan’s ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA’ (Blu-ray, MUBI, Not Rated) has had a remarkable, four decades and counting career that includes his collaboration as founder and musician of YMO, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, his Oscar-winning (Grammy, Golden Globe and BAFTA as well) score for the David Bowie film ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (’83) (he co-starred in the film as well) and scores for ‘The Last Emperor,’ ‘Little Buddha’ and ‘The Revenant.’
‘CODA’ is a 2018 documentary that charts Sakamoto’s recovery from cancer, continuing his protests at nuclear power plants following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster and the composition of ‘CODA’ which counts as a portrait of the artist and the man. Special Feature: Ryuichi Sakamoto at the Park Avenue Armory. In Japanese and English with English subtitles.
DID FANATICAL FANS CHEAT? ‘Quiz’ (DVD, AMC Studios, Not Rated) is a 3-part television miniseries about the real-life cheating scandal surrounding Britain’s ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ the most successful quiz show in UK history. As ‘Quiz’ begins, it appears to be an open-and-shut case, a bit of showbiz lore that’s to be told in black and white. That turns out not to be quite true. Directed by the legendary Stephen Frears (‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ ‘Florence Foster Jenkins,’ ‘The Queen,’ ‘Philomena’) and adapted from a stage play based on a nonfiction book, ‘Quiz’ is propelled by its terrific cast to capture those events that began in 2001.
(‘Succession’) is Charles Ingram, a Major in the Royal Engineers, who competes at the urging of his dominating wife Diana, a TV quiz show fanatic. Michael Sheen is the hit show’s mostly oblivious host Chris Tarrant while Helen McCrory summons the jury to think for themselves as a ferociously convincing barrister. Special Features introduce the real couple, lets Sheen discuss Tarrant and reveals the precision involved in recreating the show’s elaborate set whose dimensions were so instrumental in bringing criminal charges against the contestant.
EASTWOOD TIMES 3 Clint Eastwood’s unstoppable career entered its third phase — following Unknown Seeks Recognition and the second, Man with No Name — with a series of Hollywood action/adventure films in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that did two things: Cemented his standing as a reliable box-office magnet and solidified his image as the tough, ornery kind of guy you better not mess with. These three new Blu-ray releases are truly Classic Clint. Eastwood’s favorite and most influential director Don Siegel helmed the 1970 ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, PG) which is notable primarily for teaming him with an actress whose star was greater than his: Shirley MacLaine.
Eastwood is now an Academy Award winning, multi-nominated director. His starring and directing himself began with the critically admired psycho woman thriller ‘Play Misty for Me.’ He followed that with the very violent sadistic revenge Western ‘High Plains Drifter’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, R) in 1973 that marks his 2nd stint in the director’s chair. ‘Drifter,’ where Clint nonchalantly kills 3 bad guys in the first 20 minutes, is a little bit of ‘High Noon,’ a tiny bit mystical and was photographed by another legend Bruce Surtees (‘Dirty Harry,’ Oscar-nominated for ‘Lenny,’ the Bob Fosse biopic about Lenny Bruce). Another legend, the prolific mystery and Westerns writer Elmer Leonard, scripted Eastwood’s 1972 ‘Joe Kidd’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, PG) with direction by John Sturges (‘Gunfight at the OK Corral,’ ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘Last Train from Gun Hill’ with Kirk Douglas and Carolyn Jones). Joe Kidd is an ex-bounty hunter, hired by Robert Duvall’s rancher to hunt down a Mexican revolutionary (John Saxon). That is one formidable trio. Alex Cox, the British filmmaker and critic, provides audio commentaries on all 3 films. ‘Sister Sara’ offers a rare vintage interview with Eastwood.
SILLY BUT HARDLY CLUELESS John Landis became a Hollywood A-lister with his 3rd film ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’ the satirical comedy that made John Belushi an iconic star. But just before that, there was Landis’s 1977 ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie,’ a low-budget sketch comedy inspired by Monty Python and ‘SNL.’ In the 1987 ‘Amazon Women on the Moon’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, R) Landis returned to that absurdist/silly/satirical vibe as producer and, with 4 others, as director, including Joe Dante (‘Gremlins’). The credits begin: ‘Starring Lots of Other Actors.’ The cast ranges from Steve Guttenberg and Rosanna Arquette in a prescient skit on dating’s legal dilemmas, Carrie Fisher and Paul Bartel in an absurdly dramatic black-and-white movie, Ed Begley, Jr., as an idiot who thinks he’s invented a safe Invisible Man formula which is why he wanders around stark naked – and visible. The title refers to a continuing series of sketches involving a super-cheap sci-fi movie (with Sybil Danning and Lana Wilson, the beautiful actress murdered by Phil Spector). Michelle Pfeiffer plays an understandably hysterical mother who’s just given birth, only when her insane doctor (Griffin Dunne) brings her the ‘baby,’ it’s a Mr. Potato. And David Alan Grier delights in another running joke as a ‘Black singer who has no Soul’ (he’s introduced by B.B. King!). There’s also continued mocking of then-President Reagan. Special Features have film historians Kat Elinger and Mike McPadden’s audio commentary, a ‘True Story’ about the movie with Landis, Dante and others, newly discovered outtakes from Dante’s personal archive. And deleted scenes.
DUKE TIMES 2 Today ‘Seven Sinners’ stands as the now-classic teaming of 2 of Golden Era Hollywood’s biggest stars Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in what remains a lively, almost campy 1940 hit. When it opened ‘Seven Sinners’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated), a South Seas romp that riffs on Somerset Maugham’s ‘Miss Sadie Thompson,’ presented the great Dietrich singing in her husky voice and, without controversy, look smashing in a male Navy officer’s white uniform. Dietrich, if not the whole show, is practically a fashion show all by herself here in a series of fantastic billowy, sparkling Irene costumes.
1939 had been a watershed year for both stars. With ‘Destry Rides Again’ Dietrich scored her tremendous comeback after being declared ‘box-office poison’ while Wayne, who had struggled in B Westerns for over a decade, became an ‘overnight’ star in John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach.’ ‘Seven Sinners’ consolidated their appeal. ‘Shepherd of the Hills’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) is 1 of 3 John Wayne movies released in 1941—6 would be released the following year. ‘Shepherd’ is all about Wayne’s moonshiner who hasn’t overcome childhood trauma. It’s adapted from a popular 1907 novel that had already been filmed twice when director Henry Hathaway, who like Ford would become a Wayne favorite, made this Technicolor version. There’s an informative audio commentary by Simon Abrams.
ELLE’S MOVING ON AND UP Once upon a time Elle Fanning was a photogenic child who made movies and now with ‘The Great: Season One’ (DVD, 10 episodes, 4 discs, Paramount, Not Rated) she tackles her first adult role as Russia’s Catherine the Great. ‘Great’ as a series is comedic, satirical and dramatic. It follows familiar history: Born in Prussia, virginal Catherine goes to Russia for an arranged marriage with the Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’). Catherine would become an iconic world ruler, Russia’s longest-ever reigning female.
Where the naïve young woman arrives expecting perhaps a Disney-like fantasy, the Russian reality is one dangerous, depraved and very backward world where, as ‘The Great’ suggests, all she has to do is conspire to have her demento hubby murdered, push back against the powerful Russian Orthodox church and rouse the military and court to her cause. Bonus content: interviews with cast and the show’s creator and executive producer Tony McNamara (he won the Original Screenplay Oscar for co-writing about another female monarch with ‘The Favourite’), behind the scenes tours of the lavish sets with cast members, a study of the outrageous makeup, hair and costume designs. Plus a gag reel.
THE SAGA CONTINUES Many rate ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013) as one of TV’s greatest series ever. The bar was high then for ‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ (Blu-ray + DVD, Limited Edition, Sony, Not Rated) which serves both as epilogue and sequel. Aaron Paul returns to his career-defining role as Jesse Pinkman under the direction, writing and producing of series creator Vince Gilligan. Thematically, ‘El Camino’ conveys the transformation of Pinkman from punk to prince, from follower to leader – of his own fate. Think of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The expansive Bonus material has Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul’s audio commentary, a SUPER commentary featuring 46 (you count them, I didn’t) members of the ensemble offering insights. Plus, a gag reel, deleted scenes and a 3-scene directorial study with Gilligan.
A LANDMARK AT A PEAK One of the defining franchises of the ‘80s, Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy’ (4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital, Universal, PG) began in 1985 as the year’s biggest hit, followed by 2 sequels filmed back to back and released in 1989 and ’90. (Zemeckis continues to keep busy with a new movie out very soon, a remake of Roald Dahl’s dark fantasy ‘The Witches.’) Now released in 4K UltraHD, the ‘Ultimate Trilogy’ has an hour-plus of bonus material: There’s ‘Hollywood Museum Goes Back to the Future’ (a tour of props and memorabilia by co-writer and producer Bob Gale), ‘Back to the Future: The Musical Behind the Scenes,’ ‘An Alternate Future: Lost Audition Tapes’ (vintage audition scenes of now-famous celebs) and ‘Could You Survive the Movies? Back to the Future’ (an examination of what laws of physics were violated). There is a 6-part documentary on the franchise, deleted scenes, a Michael J. Fox Q&A and 8 archival featurettes including ‘Restoring the DeLorean.’