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Schultz reviews: 'The Empty Man' and 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Schultz reviews: 'The Empty Man' and 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Carl Schultz



“The Empty Man”   Distributed by 20th Century Studios, 137 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released October 23, 2020:

Released just in time for Halloween, in “The Empty Man” a quartet of American mountain climbers hiking in a remote area of the Eastern Himalayas accidentally happen upon the remains of an ancient evil spirit, which swiftly possesses one of the hikers, leading to the murder of the other three.  

Twenty-three years later, the same evil spirit manifests itself in Missouri, inspiring a suicide-based cult whose numbers seem to be growing by the day.  A retired police detective now toiling as a private eye attempts to infiltrate the cult as a means of locating the missing daughter of a friend...and finds he might be in over his head.

Adapted from the 2014 graphic novel of the same name and owing more than a little to the “Candyman” series of films from the 1990s, “The Empty Man” turns out to be pretentious and ponderous assault on the viewer’s senses, not so much a coherent narrative as a series of brief, disturbing scenes and often bloody images accompanied by disquieting (and frequently deafening) music and sounds.  During the picture’s first half the viewer tries hard to decipher what’s going on, and during the second half just wants it to be over.

Screenwriter and director David Prior, usually employed as a video documentary filmmaker, plainly pushes his first effort at horror through the visceral template of Ari Aster’s acclaimed “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” but with vastly different results.  Clocking in at an unforgivable (and brutal-on-the-butt) 137 minutes, there’s really nothing much going on in “The Empty Man” that the ghouls over at the Blumhouse Dungeon of Horror couldn’t accomplish twice as well in half the time.

“The Empty Man” was originally scheduled for release on August 07, but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The film’s release was eventually rescheduled for October 23 to take advantage of an opening on the distribution chart created as a result of the delay of the same studio’s big budget all-star mystery thriller “Death on the Nile.” 

Starring James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, Ron Canada, and Sasha Frolova, “The Empty Man” is rated R for language concerns, disturbing images, some sexuality, brief nudity, and scenes of violence.  Skip it.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”  Distributed by Paramount Pictures and Netflix, 129 Minutes, Rated R , Released October 16, 2020:

Occasionally in the course of human events it becomes necessary for patriots to rise from the ranks of ordinary citizens to defend freedom, not on the battlefields of Concord, Lexington, or Gettysburg, but in more familiar and ordinary locations--Selma, Alabama, for example, or Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Or a courtroom in Chicago in 1969.

In August of 1968, the Democratic National Convention was held at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.  The primary business of the convention was to select a Democratic nominee for the US Presidency to replace the retiring Lyndon Johnson, who’d stunned the country with his announcement in March that he would not seek re-election.  But the centerpiece of the election in 1968 was the controversial civil war in Vietnam.  In 1968 alone, the United States had sent over 549,000 troops to fight in support of the South Vietnamese government.

The cardinal unfairness of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was that enormous numbers of the nation’s young people were being drafted at age 18 into the military and sent to the remote tropical location to fight in another country’s civil a time when the legal voting age in the US was 21.  Additionally, many of the young men being conscripted into the military were from America’s less-affluent inner-city neighborhoods, and a disproportionate number of the US servicemen drafted into the war were people of color who lacked the resources to resist their induction.  

So along with the delegates, some 10,000 anti-war demonstrators also traveled to Chicago that August for the Democratic National Convention, lured by the notion of a national platform for their protests.

On August 28, the antiwar demonstrators clashed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park near the site of the convention with a combination of Chicago police, federal and state officers and National Guard troops, in numbers far exceeding their own.  The police were under direct orders from Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daly.  More monarch than mayor, Daly ruled the city with an iron fist, wielding more influence over the area than any Chicago leader since Al Capone during the 1920s...and with many of the same strongman tactics.

The result of the confrontation between the anti-war demonstrators and the law enforcement authorities was a police riot later called “The Battle of Michigan Avenue,” an event which took place for approximately seventeen minutes on live national television.  During the riot and in the days that followed, some 668 demonstrators were arrested, 425 were treated at temporary medical facilities, 400 were given first aid for tear gas exposure, and 110 were hospitalized.

Elected that November and inaugurated in January of 1969, President Nixon wanted scapegoats for the mayhem and carnage which disgraced the country during the Democratic Convention the previous August.  Prosecuting the Chicago Police was unthinkable for a Chief Executive who’d promised to strongly support the enforcement of domestic law and order.  So Attorney General John Mitchell and the US Department of Justice selected eight men to charge from the various factions of the antiwar movement, as a means of setting an example for other would-be demonstrators.  And their trial outraged the entire world.

The new movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” dramatizes the trial by jury of the eight anti-war demonstrators who’d been present during the convention and police riot.  The eight selected by the US Justice Department were indicted on charges of conspiracy and incitement to riot in violation of the anti-riot “Rap Brown law” passed by the US Congress in 1968--a law under which crossing state lines to incite a riot became a federal crime.   Written and directed by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the movie premiered October 16 on the Netflix streaming service.

Sorkin’s movie establishes both credibility and verisimilitude by introducing the troubled year of 1969 with black and white film clips and the voices of the martyrs of that year--Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, both of whom had spoken out in opposition to the Vietnam War.  The original eight defendants are introduced in the movie preparing for their August journey to Chicago to demonstrate against the war at the Democratic National Convention, giving voice in brief exchanges to what they hope to accomplish there.

Thirteen months later, much has changed:  The Democratic National Convention and the riots in Lincoln Park ended over a year ago.  President Johnson has retired, and President Nixon now reigns.  And with Nixon’s January inauguration came a new set of rules, the politics of repression.  The eight defendants had been indicted in March, selected to take the fall for inciting the riots.

Yippies Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and especially the media-savvy Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) want to use their fifteen minutes of international fame during the trial to mock its legitimacy by turning the proceedings into a sort of street theater emphasizing the absurdity of the event in the shadow of the ongoing war.  And indeed the first scene of the actual trial has a sort of goofy “Who’s on First” zaniness as Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) struggles to get the eight defendants’ names right.

During Abbie Hoffman’s frequent courtroom antics, middle-aged co-defendant David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) mostly looks on with a kind of boys-will-be-boys resignation, while the more conservative and deferential Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) practically wrings his hands in despair that his chance of receiving a fair trial diminish with each of his co-defendant’s rude punchlines (the movie is punctuated with scenes of defendant Hoffman relating the events later in a lecture resembling a standup comedy routine).

The conservative Hayden doesn’t realize what the more canny Abbie Hoffman has realized from the start--that their guilt is a foregone conclusion, and the trial is just a sideshow.  And when the radical Yippie clown Hoffman is the only one of the defendants to be called to testify on behalf of the defense of the entire group, he astonishes Hayden and everyone else in the courtroom with testimony that’s unexpectedly intelligent, articulate, emotionally focused, and eloquent.

Aaron Sorkin is unquestionably among the best writers working in the United States today.  Since his play “A Few Good Men” opened on Broadway in 1989, Sorkin has developed over the years from a safeguard of the American conscience and moral authority to a sort of American Shakespeare, with persuasive, realistic, and sometimes even lyrical works which range from the drama “Malice” in 1993 to the comedy “The American President” in 1995, and from the beloved television series “The West Wing” from 1999 until 2006 to the biographical “Moneyball” in 2011.

Also a gifted director, Sorkin with “The Trial of the Chicago 7” mostly allows the characters to speak for themselves.  Most of the courtroom scenes are quoted almost verbatim from legal transcripts, and the dialogue between the principal characters outside of the courtroom is mostly based on their memoirs, stated philosophies, histories, manifestoes, or reminiscences during the years that followed.

Among the remarkable ensemble cast assembled by Sorkin for  “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Mark Rylance as the defendants’ defense council William Kunstler customarily disappears into his role without a trace--his Kunstler is distracted, authoritative, disheveled, impassioned, and brilliant.  Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden is boyish, clean-cut, earnest, intellectual and idealistic, every mother’s perfect son.  

Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman nails his character precisely right down to his Boston accent--by turns funny, wily, tragic, and devilish, Cohen’s Abbie revels in his reputation as a political radical.  Character actor John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the elder statesman among the Seven, is subdued, urbane, mature, and patient.  Only Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin misses the mark:  The real Rubin was quick, bright, sharp-eyed, and manipulative, while Strong’s Rubin is a dull stoner.   

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Federal Prosecutor Richard Schultz is Hayden’s opposite number--young, smart, idealistic, Schultz is conflicted in his mission, with no real basis for a legal case to prosecute but unwilling to defy the crude and profane US Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman).  And Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman adds to his list of authoritative villains--condescending, impatient, barely controlling his frequent rage and contempt.  

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from HBO’s “Watchmen” appears as Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, the eighth defendant in the trial, whose case was eventually separated from the others.  In Chicago for only a few hours during the weekend of the convention to fulfill a speaking engagement and having little actual connection with the other defendants, Seale more than the others was plainly being tried for what he represented rather than for anything he’d actually done--a fact that Seale continually attempts to emphasize to Judge Hoffman.

In the absence of his injured attorney, Seale attempts to act as his own legal representative during the trial.  And because of his frequent objections and disruptions to the proceedings, Judge Hoffman astonishingly orders Seale physically removed from the courtroom, manhandled by deputies, bound and gagged, and carried back into the courtroom to be chained to his chair at the defendants’ table as the spectators in the room look on in stunned horror.  The first question asked of Seales by the others:  “Can you breathe?”

Just when you think the movie’s casting can’t get any more ideal, Michael Keaton shows up in a quick two-scene cameo appearance as former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.  Using much the same flat, subdued monotone he employed in his two movie appearances as Batman, Keaton radiates power and authority in his role--every word he utters is solid gold.  When the defense attorneys with Hayden in tow call on Clark to request his assistance in the trial, Keaton’s Clark quietly asks, “What took you so realize I’m your star witness?” 

On the final day of the trial the seven remaining defendants file into the courtroom to learn their punishment, weary and dispirited after their five-month legal ordeal.  Even the usually upbeat Yippie jester Abbie Hoffman is silent and subdued.  Tom Hayden is elected by the six others to speak on their behalf, and is given instructions by Judge Hoffman about how he is to speak, and what he is allowed to say.  

After clarifying the perimeters of his remarks, the most respectful and deferential of the Chicago Seven elects to read a statement which is simultaneously defiant, rebellions to Hoffman’s instructions, yet so deeply patriotic that even prosecutor Schultz rises to his feet in respect while the judge sputters and fumes in rage.  During the scene, the viewer somehow can’t help feeling a swell of both pride and heartbreak at being American.

Brilliant, emotionally accurate, often moving, occasionally heartbreaking, and always inspiring, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is highly recommended.  The film is rated R for language concerns throughout, sequences of violence, bloody images, and some drug use.

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