Fighting for the Pursuit of Justice

We all want justice. We all want to see it served. But does it always turn out that way? Seeking it requires diligence and a concerted effort to make sure that what needs to be revealed indeed is. Nevertheless, even with the best of intentions and a noble approach, it’s possible that the process can become compromised, making the need to fight for the truth even more important, a prospect explored in the gripping new fact-based drama, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (web site, trailer).

The summer of 1968 – like much of the decade that preceded it – was a time of turmoil in the U.S. The country was embroiled in an exceedingly unpopular war, riots plagued the streets of American cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy shocked the nation, and angry, sometimes violent protests on a variety of social issues were breaking out seemingly everywhere. And, with a critical election coming up, the tension level swelled, especially as reformers and establishmentarians clashed both literally and ideologically. But, for everything that had happened thus far, the most dramatic outburst was yet to come during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Windy City was about to become a flash point between protestors seeking change and an old guard determined to preserve order and, if possible, do whatever it could to squelch dissent, even if presented peacefully.

In the run-up to the convention, a number of protest groups began organizing their events. They did so in an orderly fashion, too, even going through proper channels to obtain permits for their rallies and marches. However, when the city learned who these applicants were, officials systematically turned down virtually every request submitted by anyone with leftist or anti-establishment leanings (most notably by David Stahl (Steve Routman), the city bureaucrat charged with reviewing and issuing permits, who operated under express orders from Mayor Richard Daley to refuse the requests of any “anti-patriotic” groups).

Four of the eventual Chicago 7 defendants (from left, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen)), lead a March through the Windy City during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Photo by Niko Tavernise, © 2020, courtesy of Netflix.

Needless to say, such blatant prejudicial treatment did not set well with the protestors, who vowed to move ahead with their plans, all the while insisting on remaining peaceful in their approach. Various groups began making their own arrangements, including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) under the leadership of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the MOBE), whose efforts were organized by David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) with the assistance of Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) also planned to make an appearance to give a speech.

However, despite intentions to keep matters nonviolent, that’s not how events played out. As the convention began and protestors assembled, circumstances took a violent turn when demonstrators found themselves involved in skirmishes with Chicago police. To make matters worse, the whole spectacle played out uncut on national TV for the entire nation to see. But, as tragic and embarrassing as all this was for both the Windy City and the nation as a whole, the situation was about to become even more distressing and humiliating.

With the election of Republican candidate Richard Nixon as President in November 1968, the nation’s political and social direction took a dramatic turn to the right, and Nixon was only too happy to oblige those leanings. Together with newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), the Nixon Administration wanted to make an example of the protestors. As grand jury investigations into the incidents of August 1968 unfolded, the new Chief Executive and his minions clandestinely encouraged the orchestration of what was essentially a show trial aimed at bringing down the demonstrators (and, it was hoped, to break the backs of their movements through successful court decisions against them). In the wake of these formal inquiries, charges were filed against Hayden, Davis, Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger, Weiner, Froines and Seale on the grounds of violating the federal Rap Brown Law for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite riots, despite the fact that most of them didn’t know one another until they met in Chicago. Given that, one naturally might ask, “How could that constitute a conspiracy?”

When faced with crowds of demonstrators in Chicago’s Grant Park, the city’s police mobilize to keep order, as seen in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Niko Tavernise, © 2020, courtesy of Netflix.

When the trial began in September 1969, the prosecution was represented by U.S. Attorneys Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The majority of the defendants were counseled by attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Seale’s lawyer, however, was not in attendance due to health issues, leaving him without representation, a fact that he repeatedly raised before the court but was summarily ignored. These were among the many unfounded and inexplicable rulings handed down in the case by presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who was clearly biased against the defendants, nearly always turning down their requests while gladly approving the motions of the prosecution.

It wasn’t long before it became obvious that the fix was in, especially since Schultz and Foran were operating under explicit orders from Mitchell to get the convictions the government wanted, no matter what it took. And, because of that, the courtroom quickly turned into an unmitigated circus. For example, Seale’s outbursts over the denial of his lack of representation motions frequently turned boisterous, prompting his supporters, such as fellow Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and others, to loudly begin chanting claims of judicial discrimination. (It subsequently became more than a little suspicious when Hampton turned up dead shortly thereafter.) Meanwhile, defendants Hoffman and Rubin routinely mocked the procedures and decorum of the court, calling the proceedings a political trial and routinely shouting out profanities. Then there were the numerous charges of contempt that the judge issued against the defendants and their counsel, distributed so freely that it was as if he were handing out Halloween candy. And all of this is but a mere sampling of the unbelievable events that went on.

The key issue in the case, of course, was, “Who started the violence that broke out during the protests?” In testimony offered by undercover operatives (Caitlin FitzGerald, Wayne Duvall, Mike Geraghty), the defendants were undeniably pegged as being at fault. Yet, given the peaceful intentions of the protestors, it seemed unlikely that they would have strayed so far afield from their plans, despite the treatment they received at the hands of the police.

Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) of the Students for a Democratic Society addresses a crowd of protestors in director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Photo by Niko Tavernise, © 2020, courtesy of Netflix.

So who threw the first punch? That’s what the proceedings were supposed to find out. But, considering the court’s blatantly partial handling of the defendants, it became increasingly clear they would never get a fair trial or an honest judgment – unless, of course, defendants’ counsel could present a witness capable of blowing the prosecution’s allegations out of the water. And, as the protracted trial went on and on, Kunstler and Weinglass just may have found such a witness in former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), who looked into the case before leaving office and prior to Mitchell’s appointment by Nixon as his replacement. Clark’s contention that the inquiry found nothing to support pressing charges against the defendants could completely turn the tide of the trial – provided he would be allowed to testify.

Such was the state of the trial as it headed toward its conclusion in February 1970. What would be the result? Would justice be served? Or would it be denied in favor of a politically expedient outcome? That’s what a nation on edge was waiting to find out – and what might come of it as the country moved toward an uncertain future.

To achieve justice, we must rely on a process that is eminently authentic, faithful to the truth, with a sense of veracity that we can all believe in. But what happens when efforts are made to deliberately manipulate that truth, to bend it in such a way to attain a certain agenda-driven outcome? Can we guarantee that justice will be served under such circumstances, especially when a jury is expected to rule based on evidence that may be incomplete, slanted or purposely distorted? And, if not, what is the likelihood that any resulting miscarriage can be rectified at some point? Those questions were put on trial during this historic proceeding, as this film so clearly shows, warts and all.

Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), a defendant without counsel during the trial of the “Chicago 8,” fights for recognition of his representation status in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Photo by Niko Tavernise, © 2020, courtesy of Netflix.

In the end, those deciding the fate of the defendants had to rule based on beliefs that went beyond a reasonable doubt. And those beliefs, in turn, had to be based on the evidence presented in court, even if it didn’t represent the full story of what actually happened. So, in light of that, should it come as any surprise that the outcome was an outgrowth of those qualifying conditions? That’s how matters generally turn out in these situations.

Based on how matters played out during the trial, it became apparent that officialdom sought to game the system to arrive at its desired result, even if that meant floating inauthentic information in court. That included not only manipulating the testimony of its own witnesses, but also looking for ways to intentionally exclude information that would undermine its contentions, especially damaging and compelling arguments put forth by the defendants. Presenting “the facts” in that way could only serve to misrepresent the evidence and, in turn, the beliefs that jurors would make of it in handing down their verdict.

And, if twisting the evidence by itself was not sufficient, then other tactics were employed to help sway the outcome. These measures included attempted jury tampering to eliminate panel members who appeared sympathetic to the defendants’ cause. But these maneuverings paled in comparison to other ploys, such as efforts aimed at excluding the testimony of former Attorney General Clark. However, perhaps the most egregious example of such malfeasance came when Judge Hoffman grew so impatient with Seale’s repeated motions regarding his representation status that he had the defendant bound and gagged in the courtroom, an action that shocked the public and ultimately led to the declaration of a mistrial in this defendant’s case (thereby reducing the number of defendants down to the now-familiar “Chicago 7”).

Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) presides over a chaotic courtroom in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Initiatives such as these illustrate the practice of achieving a desired result at any cost, no matter what fallout might be involved. While those pursuing such a course may have convinced themselves that this is a perfectly legitimate tactic, they often lose sight of the fact that it can lead to all manner of unintended side effects and distorted outcomes. That was certainly the case here, for example, as evidenced by the declaration of Seale’s mistrial.

Despite the many challenges and obstacles that the defendants faced during their trial, they kept fighting, because they believed they were right. They were convinced that they had the truth on their side, if only they could figure out how to successfully bring it to the surface. But, perhaps more importantly, there was more at stake than their own destinies, including the right to free speech and the right to a fair trial, both of which were coming under attack by forces seeking to curtail or eliminate them for everyone, not just those in the Chicago courtroom. Their efforts to champion these civil liberties were part of their reason for being. It’s a message that was certainly important at the time, but it’s perhaps even more crucial now than ever before in light of the current sociopolitical climate. And, to that end, the timing of this film’s release is more than a little serendipitous, a notion that should not be lost on any of us.

Attorneys Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie, left) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right) present the government’s prosecutorial case in director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Photo by Niko Tavernise, © 2020, courtesy of Netflix.

While this superb docudrama takes some liberties with the facts of this landmark court case, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering gets much of it right, with what it invents making for some damned good theater. Admittedly, the picture is a tad talky in the first half hour, but that shortcoming is covered well by the film’s stellar cast, including Cohen, Rylance, Redmayne, Strong, Lynch, Langella, Gordon-Levitt and Keaton. And, once the picture hits its stride, it’s a compelling watch from that point forward, especially in the flashback sequences that re-create the events that were the subject of the trial. This is one we should all see – and make a point of embracing its message. The film had a limited theatrical run and is now available for streaming on Netflix.

Legend has it that, upon exiting Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention, American political icon Benjamin Franklin was reported to have described the newly formed government as “A republic, if you can keep it.” Observers might find that qualification somewhat unsettling – and with good reason. As the trial of the Chicago 7 illustrates, it can be all too easily lost, a warning that should be borne in mind today as we parallel those conditions of five decades ago. It’s a caution very much in line with Mark Twain’s observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And, considering the stanzas involved in this particular verse, that’s poetry we can all do without.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Perils of Desperation

Preserving a family legacy is certainly a noble goal. It provides a sense of continuity that links the generations and gives a family its character, reputation and even notoriety. But how far is one willing to go to keep up the tradition? At what point does a goal turn into an obsession? And what are the costs of going too far? Those are among the issues raised and addressed in the captivating new Israeli psychological thriller, “God of the Piano” (web site, trailer).

Anat Tal (Naama Preis) comes from a well-known musical family. Her father, Ariah (Ze’ev Shimshoni), has long been connected with the performance and composition program at a respected conservatory. Her brother, Dror (Alon Openhaim), is noted for his performance skills, even if he doesn’t pursue them as seriously as the family would like. And Anat is herself an accomplished pianist, even if her talents don’t quite rise to the standards of the rest of the family. She hopes to compensate for that, however, with the child she is carrying, firmly committed to seeing her soon-to-be-born son take over the family legacy and become an accomplished musician in his own right.

When the infant arrives, though, Anat and her husband, Hanan (Ron Bitterman), are in for a rude awakening: the newborn is deaf. The disappointment is nearly crippling: how can a deaf child rise to the status of well-renowned musician? And, when Anat learns there is little hope for her son recovering from his condition, she becomes despondent.

Pianist Anat Tal (Naama Preis) longs to continue the family legacy of virtuoso musicians but isn’t seen as quite having what it takes to do so in the new Israeli psychological thriller, “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Hanan steps in at this point and requests information from the Silent Speaking Institute, an organization designed to provide education to hearing-impaired children and to assist their families in coping with their particular challenges. But Anat quietly sees this as a wholly inadequate solution, because it doesn’t address the objective she has in mind – that of raising her own little virtuoso, a goal she clings to despite her circumstances. She becomes desperate and impulsively decides to take extreme measures to “correct” for this “accident” of birth. While in the hospital nursery one day, with no one looking, she switches the bracelets of her own child for one who obviously can hear. She tells no one, not even Hanan, and the new parents soon take home their “son.” And, when the child comes back to the hospital for subsequent hearing tests, he’s found to have miraculously recovered from his condition, the doctors chalking up his deafness to an inexplicable temporary impairment.

With no one the wiser, Anat begins raising her young son, Idan (Itay Ziper), to become the musical prodigy she hoped for. His grandfather is understandably proud, hoping for a bright future for the youngster, something that could become a reality with Anat’s committed guidance and Ariah’s recent promotion at the conservatory as an admissions committee member. And, as an older Idan (Andi Lev) approaches his teen years, hopes rise that he will fulfill his expected destiny.

However, despite Idan’s growth as a performer and composer, Anat grows increasingly compulsive about his training and commitment. As a 12-year-old, he’d like to be able to experience many of the same joys as his peers, something that Anat curtails in the belief that such distractions will derail his efforts. Likewise, as someone who is growing into adolescence, Idan wants to be able to start making his own decisions, including some that don’t jibe with his mother’s wishes. The obsessive stage mom attitude begins to run thin, not only with Idan, but also with Hanan, who disagrees with his wife’s strategies for not letting their son be who he is, a growing source of strife in their marriage.

When musician Anat Tal (Naama Preis) learns that her newborn son is deaf, her dreams of raising the next family virtuoso are shattered in director Itay Tal’s debut feature, “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Given Anat’s doubts about Idan’s commitment to his craft, she begins seeking the advice of a famous composer and performer, Rafael Ben-Ari (Shimon Mimran). In the process, considering  Anat’s growing marital difficulties, their involvement soon turns personal, leading to an affair. But, while Rafael’s interests genuinely seem sincere, Anat sees their connection only in terms of what she can get out of it, namely, the means to help bolster her son’s chances for admission to the conservatory’s composition program. And that opportunity comes when Rafael lovingly composes a piece for Anat, something that she appears to graciously accept but that she secretly hopes she might be able to pass off as one of Idan’s works if the need arises.

While all this is going on, Anat also becomes uncomfortable that the secret of her hospital switch may be exposed. She’s reminded of what she did when she receives phone calls and mailings from the Silent Speaking Institute. While the communications are most likely attributable to her name never having been removed from the organization’s mailing list, the repeated contacts nevertheless serve as unnerving reminders of her actions. They occur so frequently, in fact, that, despite diligent efforts to cease these unsolicited communications, she finally visits the institute to demand that her name be removed from its contact lists. But that visit becomes even more unsettling when she meets an SSI administrator, Or (Leora Rivlin), who turns out to be Anat’s neighbor. And, when their conversation turns to one of the organization’s children, it strikes an uncomfortably familiar chord. Could it be that Anat’s past has come back to haunt her?

By this point, it seems that Anat has gotten herself into a quandary much more deeply than she ever anticipated. With her son’s future, her current marriage and her own past on the line, she’s facing challenges at every turn. How will they turn out for her? That’s what remains to be seen.

When budding musician Idan Tal (Andi Lev, right) begins his journey to greatness with the aid of his grandfather, Ariah (Ze’ev Shimshoni, left), he has little suspicion that he’s not who he thinks he is, as seen in “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Having goals is certainly admirable, but, when we become so preoccupied with their fulfillment, it’s easy for those objectives to turn into obsessions, as Anat’s actions so clearly demonstrate. And, as those desperate actions show, they can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. Such fallout can be difficult to deal with, but that’s often the case when we lose our perspective. If allowed to become obsessive, those driving forces in the unfolding of our existence can turn disastrous, leading to all sorts of new challenges, many of which could prove more demanding than any of those we envisioned at the outset.

Many of Anat’s actions illustrate what can happen when we become so focused on an outcome that we seek its fulfillment at any cost, no matter what other side effects may accompany it. This “consequences be damned” take on things is usually driven by poor choices and an inherently reckless approach, leading to new problems to contend with, many of which are often handled in an equally irresponsible way, in turn prompting new generations of obstacles to overcome.

This is obvious, for example, through all of the challenges Anat faces when she switches the babies in the hospital. Had she not resorted to such a desperate step, she might not have had to deal with an adolescent with attitude issues, the frequent “pestering” of the Silent Speaking Institute or her marital troubles, among other problems. What’s more, all of this might have been avoided if she hadn’t been so single-mindedly focused on achieving her original goal. If Anat didn’t zealously adhere to the notion that a deaf individual was fundamentally incapable of becoming a musical genius, she may have encountered far fewer (and less daunting) problems. (I mean, hadn’t she ever heard of Beethoven? As a musician, one might think that she of all people would know better – and not cling to such a shortsighted perspective.)

Distraught father Hanan Tal (Ron Bitterman) is upset that his overly controlling wife is raising their musical prodigy son in a way that deprives him of the joys of childhood in “God of the Piano,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Anat faces an additional coping challenge through all of the reminders of her actions. For example, try as she might to eliminate the SSI communications, they keep coming back to haunt her, as if they were prodding her conscience to atone for her past. These synchronicities often provide us with clues about what we’re supposed to do. In most cases, they offer us beneficial tips that lead us to contacts or resources that can assist us. But, for Anat, they continually push her to make up for her mistakes, and their recurring nature won’t leave her alone until she does. That can be like living through a waking nightmare; do we really want that?

All of these issues can be avoided by acting authentically, being our true selves, and following our genuine, heartfelt dictates. Given Anat’s reactions to the challenges she eventually faced, she had to realize that her acts of desperation were not in her best interests or those of Idan and her family. Perhaps she had to undergo these experiences to learn that lesson, but, as the problems mounted, at some point she had to understand that what she had done was wrong and that the initial issue only became compounded by new ones as she tried to compensate for the original mistake. The sooner we realize we need to be truthful with ourselves, the better off we’ll be in the long run.

Israeli director Itay Tal’s debut feature packs quite a suspenseful punch in its 80-minute runtime, especially in its remarkable ability to move the story along more by deeds than words. This psychological thriller staged in an unlikely setting makes it a fresh, original offering, one that captivates throughout. The film’s excellent ensemble and superb score (much of it original) bring this compelling story to life, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats right up to the end. This surprisingly gripping offering is available for first-run online streaming and is a featured presentation at upcoming events, such as the St. Louis International Film Festival.

When stage mother Anat Tal (Naama Preis, left) seeks the advice of renowned pianist and composer Rafael Ben-Ari (Shimon Mimran, right) about the future of her aspiring virtuoso son, their relationship turns more than professional in “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

When we allow our actions to be guided by our compulsions, we can set ourselves up for serious trouble. This illustrates the power of our convictions. If they take us into territory in which we know we needn’t dare set foot, the road ahead can be a difficult one. So, when such incidents arise, we’d be best to take a step back to consider where our beliefs may be leading us. It’s one of those times when second-guessing ourselves just might prove prudent, both in the short and long term. It could be difficult, but it could also save us considerable anguish, something that no obsession is worth.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

It’s a Wrap!


With the 56th annual Chicago International Film Festival now in the books, here’s a look back at the Festival’s first all-virtual program. Find out more by reading “Wrapping Up the 2020 Chicago Film Festival,” with brief reviews of 18 movies that I screened during this year’s event. Several films will be featured with full reviews in the near future, so stay tuned!

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved