Sacha Baron Cohen

Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the least strange thing that was up for an Oscar this year. It was nominated for six awards and lost all six, which is not unheard of, but the one surprising detail is that it didn’t win for writing. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed it, has been nominated three times before but only won for The Social Network. Maybe it’s not strange that he didn’t win given that history, but this felt like the Most Writing, at least, and that has to be worth something. Emerald Fennell won for Promising Young Woman, and should have, but it’s surprising to see the Academy agree with that.

Aaron Sorkin complaints are a little predictable in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate. I loved Sports Night and The West Wing like everyone else and I think The Social Network is great. You can pick a ton of other pieces of work from his career to highlight, but I still think his best work is the very strange, but necessarily strange, Steve Jobs. The script is designed to sell a tightly wound, intense person as the centerpiece that holds things together and to then unravel to show us how that isn’t always true. The performances are strong, but it’s the script that makes it go. There are none of the problems that dog The Theory of Everything or a million other “real” stories from the era. It’s way too tight, but so was Jobs himself. It works because the style fits the subject.

This gets to the complaints. Sorkin can apparently only do this one thing, though he does it to such a degree that he’s made a career out of it. Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than a decade before he directed it and it feels like it, at times. Every creative person has their “tells” and the Sorkin dialogue is his. There are unbearable moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the entire movie feels relentless. It does what he wants it to do, which is what makes it an unquestionable success. It’s simply a matter of taste of if that is what you, the viewer, want it to be, that will determine if this is good or not.

I think people are too hard on Sorkin, usually, but this movie really make me question that defense. I liked it, broadly speaking, but I don’t remember the last movie watching experience where I was that aware I was watching a movie. Characters never take a moment to listen to each other. Everyone barrels into every scene already talking and leaves still talking. It feels unnecessary to belabor this point because if you know anything about Sorkin you already expect this. He wrote his version of this story and then directed it. It ended up as you’d expect and everyone liked it enough to nominate it but no one liked it enough to let it win anything.

The Chicago 7, which were 8 before they were 7, were men on trial for inciting a riot after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Sorkin met Steven Spielberg and agreed to write the screenplay after hearing the story, but ultimately he had to direct it after several directors moved on from the project. It all came to fruition when a cast of lots and lots of strange, but great, people joined Sorkin and told the story. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly great as the straight-laced Tom Hayden who just wants everyone to take this whole trial seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play the buddy duo of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who want to get high and make jokes. Mark Rylance brings a lot of humor to a simple part as the defense attorney for the group. The list goes on and on and on.

I won’t mention everyone, but Frank Langella as the crooked judge who famously likely lost this case for the state, ultimately, by going over the top in courtroom antics that the audience will find ridiculous but mostly happened, really steals the show. Cohen was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Daniel Kaluuya, who somehow was not the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, but you could pick a lot of these people and call them the best performance here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the state’s lead dog trying to nail the group. The term “ensemble cast” is obvious, but it’s rare that it’s this big. I just don’t have the room to go into everyone, but even the smaller parts here are carried with serious weight, down to essentially a cameo from Michael Keaton.

All of these truly excellent performances are why you should watch it, but Aaron Sorkin is why you maybe shouldn’t. If you aren’t buying what he’s selling already, you’re going to hate this. It’s even more of what he always does and it really does come over and over like body blows. The one-liners are constant and the writing is so tight it chokes any moment you might reflect on the seriousness of the situation. The story is already grand, but not necessarily one everyone will already know, but Sorkin really does pound it into a tight cube with insistent, witty dialogue. Every individual line is perfect, you could not dispute any of this, but the result of them all chaining together makes everyone feel like someone pretending to be a person.

Which they are, right? It’s only a real complaint when you compare it to everything else you’ll see this year and, really, every other year. Sorkin cannot let go and let the movie be more than a movie. He can’t let people make mistakes and catch those genius accidents. Everything is so perfect that you’d think someone painted the frames. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it looks fine, it’s that it’s paced like someone cut every syllable together and sweat over the perfect final version. It doesn’t feel as totally starry-eyed as The West Wing, though the ending is a little too twinkly, but it just isn’t as messy as it should be.

It’s still pretty solid and it’s extremely watchable, but it’s just the best possible version of what Sorkin seems to be interested in making. It all feels disposable, though, but that may be the nature of a courtroom drama. There are familiar beats to these stories that lose their weight once the verdict comes down. There is a version of this that complicates the characters further and paints history as complicated and as grainy as it actually was, with more complex arguments than Hayden and Hoffman debating political power as voting through a clear, direct, heavily pointed at modern lens, but that isn’t what Sorkin wants. He got what he wanted by writing and directing, and the result is a very watchable, very tiresome, very perfect version of what he wanted to make. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Persona has a strong case to be the best movie ever made. This is not the best work that anyone involved in it has ever made, except Eddie Redmayne, who I don’t really like in anything else.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, because it failed the last check. I do think it’s fine, if the review didn’t make that clear, I just think Sorkin is capable of more than this. I think we’re capable as an audience of making connections he refuses to let be subtle. I think if you pull out any two minute clip of this movie you will be impressed, but the entirety of the whole thing feels insubstantial. I diagnose the problem as the too-tight writing, but I’d love to hear what other people think. It’s not a bad movie, just a missed opportunity, and only one I call out because what is there is good, but could have been great.

You can watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The first Borat movie was a phenomenon. Sacha Baron Cohen is a madman and has made a career of topping himself, but his whole thing works not just because it’s so crazy, but because it has something to say. Obviously the performance is the main focus, but the enduring element is not the absurdity but the quiet moments. I’m not sure I would have said that about the first one, considering the decade-plus of “my wife!” we have all lived through, but it’s absolutely true of the sequel.

When they announced Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which is actually called Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan but we’ll stick with the shorter title, I had zero hopes. The first one is crazy but it’s also self-contained. What more do you need to know? What more could there be to say? The plot of the first movie isn’t even important, I didn’t remember that it all hinged around Borat wanting to meet and marry Pamela Anderson until I revisited it. What you remember are the real-life moments, the blasé racism that Cohen was able to coax out of people with just about no prodding. You remember the mirror that he held up to our fellow Americans, not the silliness. More of that could surely work, but it would just be more of the same, right?

The sequel tries a much more complex premise and a much more traditional narrative. It is, indeed, more Borat, but it’s also a real movie in ways that Borat never was or needed to be. The original is a goofy road movie where Cohen wanders through American life to make people look silly and stupid, but the sequel finds a changed America where Borat is already a part of it. People recognize him and he’s famous enough to be a Halloween costume. The guy at the party store tells him he looks like the suit in the bag, but Cohen insists it’s not him. It’s a smart move to acknowledge that a significant portion of the country recognizes this character now and he’s thus up against a challenge if he wants everyone to be their true selves with who they think is some strange foreign reporter.

The true genius of the sequel is the casting of Maria Bakalova as his daughter. Incredibly, she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role. That’s probably scandalous to a certain kind of Academy voter, but I really think it makes sense. This could just be two more hours of horrible racists nodding along with Cohen saying crazy stuff, but Bakalova adds genuine emotion to the film. I didn’t have any interest in seeing more Borat, but I am here to tell you that you should watch more Borat, if only for Bakalova’s performance.

The film opens with Borat doing hard labor for embarrassing Kazakhstan after the release of the first movie. The government wants him to go back to America to offer a bribe to Mike Pence, because, sure, why not? His daughter stows away in a crate with a monkey who is also part of the government and a famous adult film start in Kazakhstan. Things all break poorly and Borat and his daughter Tutar must find a way into Donald Trump’s inner circle to redeem the nation and to save Borat’s life. You got all this?

The plot actually works, which I really feel like is the secret weapon. Borat does do typical Borat stuff, including getting a bakery to write an anti-Semitic phrase on a cake with absolutely zero hesitation, but mostly it’s all in service of the plot. The original feels wild at times and is always in service of a laugh first, a justification second, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm wants you to feel like these stakes matter. It’s a neat trick in a ridiculous comedy and one that I mention this many times because it really is pretty remarkable.

Tutar has been raised with some terrible ideas about what women can do in the world and the role of femininity as part of her identity, and a lot of her characterization is spent undoing that programming. Some of the basics are a statement about other cultures, but a lot is about America itself. Sure, it starts with Tutar asking for a golden cage to live in, but a lot of what she is shown as “enlightened” American society is similarly grim. Not every critique is as clear as the racist cake woman, but a parade of people who are shocked by the gross-out stuff in Borat’s life try to tell him that women acting stupid and debutante balls are actually the way to go. It’s not really that much better and them not realizing that is the point.

The world of 2020 isn’t completely different than the world of 2006, but in the time between the two movies our ability to be shocked by objectively shocking things has dulled. I couldn’t help but think about that during a scene towards the end where Borat gets a crowd to sing a happy tune about how the Saudi government tortures journalists and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. I remember the similar elements of the first movie feeling horrific. It felt like some of those had to be staged or there had to be something else happening. Obviously some people will sing a racist song with you in some dark corners of the world, but we’re not really like that, are we?

Well, yeah, we are. Donald Trump’s presidency was a constant reminder of what America actually always has been and it removed a lot of people’s ability to be shocked. Making a movie that shows people even worse than you expect them to be is a tremendous challenge in 2020 that it wasn’t in 2006, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm clears the bar. When you see people on screen talking about wanting to sleep with Borat’s daughter as soon as he leaves or faxing death threats back and forth or whatever else moves the plot along, it’s just less surprising now. Shelving some of the crazy stuff and replacing it with a somewhat tender, sorta, story about a father and his daughter was a good play.

It’s still pretty crazy. I don’t want to spoil any of the genuinely wild stuff, but a dance scene among the debutantes should be included in the Oscar highlight reel for Best Supporting Actress forever if Bakalova wins. It is unbelievable. You just have to see it.

I don’t know that we needed more Borat and I’m pretty sure we don’t need even more, but this is worth your time. If you’re aware of anything from it you know the Rudy Giuliani part, where he agrees to an interview with Tutar and then goes to a hotel room with her. It’s pretty wild to see even if you know what’s coming. Giuliani seems to be speed-running ruining his life over the last handful of years and this performance is just another part of that disaster. With most of the real people in these movies you can at least see how they got into this mess, but I really can’t imagine what Giuliani was thinking here.

The whole experience is tighter than Borat and it really does deserve to be seen. The Trump stuff is pretty light, which works to showcase Tutar and Borat as characters. Bakalova is the standout and it’s not gimmicky at all that she’s up for an Oscar for a damn Borat movie. She’s funny as hell, especially when she coaxes people into telling the jokes for her as an interviewer. This had to be a huge task and to balance real pathos with an absurd premise is an accomplishment worthy of your attention.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is a lot better than Hillbilly Elegy. Most things are, but it’s also better at the thing Hillbilly Elegy is trying to do. Both movies want to present a look at “real” America, with obviously very different suggestions of what you’ll find when you look. Hillbilly Elegy feels forced and slanted, with ridiculous, long scenes to express simple ideas. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is obviously ridiculous, but you learn a lot more from quick commentary that isn’t underlined. Borat the character is a bumbling nightmare, but Cohen the storyteller isn’t turning to camera to explain “that was racist!” Your movie should be at least as artful and smooth as a Borat movie. That’s where the line is.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s not really trying to be. This is supposed to make you think, at least a little, and it does that. It’s funny even though you know the Borat deal at this point. Bakalova’s performance is my favorite I’ve seen so far this year and while I don’t think she’s gonna win the Oscar, I really do want to point out that it’s not a stunt. The Academy is so often a decade or more behind and so ham-fisted so often that it’s worth praising them when they do something just a little bold and just a little bit interesting.

You can watch Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.