Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Greatest Hits (1950-1960)

The more I’ve learned about the Walt Disney Company the more it’s become clear to me that you can’t truly understand their history just by looking at their animated movies.  Starting in the 1950s they began investing heavily into making live action films that also fit into their overall brand and would continue to make them simultaneously with their animated productions right up to this day.  Disney’s live action work (and here I’m talking about the official Disney stuff with the castle logo, not their recent run of movies based on Marvel and Star Wars) has often been a sort of parallel Hollywood universe that existed alongside the other studios but which would generally use homegrown actors and directors rather than the stars that would be traded liberally between the other studios.  The films in question generally don’t cross my path and tend not to stream and air from my usual classic movie sources and my hope is that looking into them will generally give me a richer idea of what the movie going landscape was like during various eras.  Now, Disney made  a TON of these movies and no one but the most devoted fanboys will watch all of them so my goal is to just look into their work during the 50s, 60s, and 70s and pick out some of their most notable films.  I’m not planning to dig too deep into what they were doing during my own lifetime, and I’m probably not going to track down much of anything that’s not easily accessible on Disney+.

Treasure Island (1950)

The effects of World War II on Disney have been pretty well documented and they were largely wound up in the effect it had on the European markets that had made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one of the biggest hits in cinema history up to that point.  Weirdly enough these headaches persisted after the war ended and played a big role in pushing Disney into making its first live action films.  Apparently after the war the UK was in some kind of complicated economic bind and had passed laws which imposed a gigantic tariff on films imported into the country and this essentially froze up a bunch of Disney’s funds in the country in such a way that required them to spend the money on films made in the country.  Since their animation studio was in Los Angeles and there was no practical way to set up a new one elsewhere, the solution was to produce a series of live action films in the UK so they could be exporters rather than importers in the country and use those assets rather than having them sit there indefinitely.  They chose as their first project an adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s youth adventure classic “Treasure Island” and also used it as another vehicle for their Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart star Bobby Driscoll, who they cast as Jim Hawkins.

The film pretty closely follows the plot outline of the original novel; this wasn’t the first adaptation and certainly wouldn’t be the last.  For that matter it wouldn’t even be the last Disney adaptation as they did some versions for TV and would eventually bring it to space for Treasure Planet.  It is, however, I think one of the more notable adaptations and solidified a lot of the pirate archetypes.  Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver.  Newton was a hard drinking man’s man who had a long resume of playing tough guys in British film and in this performance he used an exaggerated West Country accent which almost certainly played a major role in establishing what we now consider “pirate speak” of the “Avast ye mateys” variety.  The rest of the cast was also decent, even Bobby Driscoll has grown a bit as an actor and is less annoying than in his other two big films.  The film doesn’t exactly have epic production values but it doesn’t look cheap and I was also interested to see that the film didn’t feel as sanitized as they might in some of Disney’s animated films.  The movie is not any more violent than the average western of the era but there was no hesitation here to have characters get shot and killed over the course of the adventure.   In general I wouldn’t say that the movie is a major accomplishment or anything but as an old school adventure matinee it mostly holds up as good fun.
***1/2 out of Five

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

After having made a handful of adventure movies in England with varying degrees of box office success Disney found itself making something that was a lot more ambitious than what they had been doing in the live action world with their Jules Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Of all the live action films that Disney made this in many ways feels the list like a “Disney movie” in part because of the presence of big stars from other studios like Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre and it was directed by Richard Fleischer, a journeyman filmmaker who made a pretty solid career making large scale is perhaps slightly bland films like Tora! Tora! Tora! for other studios.  It’s one of the first movies of any kind to use the cinemascope format and it’s generally made on a much larger scale and with a much larger budget than most of Disney’s live action films.  You get the impression that Disney would normally save a story with fantastical elements like this for their animation department, but for whatever reason they opted not to this time and instead tried to compete with the other studios on their own turf for once.

As a production there’s a lot to appreciate in the film.  The Nautilus set looks pretty sharp, and does a good job of feeling both Victorian and modern at the same time.  The underwater photography is also very impressive considering that this was made a full ten years before Thunderball, which is my usual standard for this sort of thing.  The film’s famous fight with a giant squid has perhaps aged a bit less gracefully and now works more on the level of camp than spectacle, but it is charming in its own way.  Also rather dated are the depictions of black tribal islanders during one section, which definitely feels like it’s of the same era as the “What Made the Red Man Red” song from Peter Pan.  The cast is also a bit of a mixed bag.  James Mason is pretty great as Nemo and Paul Lukas is good as his counterpart.  Kirk Douglas on the other hand feels a tad miscast as he’s a bit too much of an action hero to be playing what is actually kind of an impulsive ass of a character and Peter Lorre just generally seems a bit out of place as a sidekick/non bad guy.  It’s also generally a rather talky movie and doesn’t really have that pacing you might expect from a family action movie, but usually in interesting ways.  Overall the movie is about what you’d expect from a big budget Hollywood adaptation of this book during this era but perhaps not a definitive and unmissable one.
***1/2 out of Five

Old Yeller (1957)

After the budget for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea went way over and the movie ended up just breaking even despite being a hit Disney clearly decided to scale back and make their live action films on more of a modest budget and targeted more specifically to kids and families.  One of those films was Old Yeller an adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name by Fred Gipson which had only just been published a year before the film came out so clearly it built its reputation quickly.  I never read that book (my elementary school’s dead redneck dog book of choice was Where the Red Fern Grows) but its reputation proceeded it… or at least the reputation of the film and book’s ending proceeded it.  Basically every generation has their own little list of movies that traumatized them as children whether its Gen Xers scared that E.T. was going to die or Silent Generation kids being sad for Bambi’s mother or the kids today who got to see Thanos wipe half their favorite superheroes out of existence.  For boomers a major cinematic trauma seems to have been the scene at the end of this when Travis has to shoot his now rabid dog to put it out of its misery and prevent it from biting and infecting anyone.  This scene has so eclipsed the rest of the movie in the minds of the public that there are major parts of the movie (like the fact that it’s set in post-Civil War Texas) that I knew next to nothing about.

The movie essentially concerns an interesting twist on the western genre as it shows what goes on at a ranch while the family patriarch is away on a cattle drive and also sort of falls under the “the one summer that changed my life” genre of coming of age stories.  If follows some of the usual beats of a “boy raises dog” story with the twist that the protagonist actively dislikes the dog for a while in the film for seemingly no reason before finally coming around.  The production values here are, well they’re average.  The frontier scenery is decent but hardly breathtaking and the film is pretty good at utilizing trained animals to get through its story.  The performances aren’t terribly good and a lot of them employ questionable Southern accents but they’re not terrible either.  If there’s any real sin here it’s just that the whole story is kind of uneventful beyond what now (and probably then) seemed like pretty standard coming of age clichés.  The film’s ending certainly didn’t make me cry but it was less wildly manipulative than I expected it to be and the film’s epilogue with Travis’ father essentially debriefing him on his pooch assassination to be pretty respectable in its own traditionally corny kind of way.  The whole movie is generally very much a product of the 1950s; the nuclear family is very much the default, parents are always right, and child rearing is heavily focused on instilling responsibility over personal development.  Overall it’s not poorly made for what it is but it’s pretty far removed from my personal sensibilities.
**1/2 out of Five

The Shaggy Dog (1959)

More than any other golden age studio I associate Disney with “living color.”  They did of course have a history of black and white shorts in their very early days like “Steamboat Willie” but even their earliest animated features were in color as were almost all of their live action films.  Hell, they even had a T.V. show called “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” all about how awesome it is to broadcast things in color.  There were, however, apparently some exceptions and their 1959 film The Shaggy Dog was one of them.  This is not one of those Disney movies that people have heartfelt memories of; there might be some boomers who have some nostalgia for it but most people kind of view it as a bit of 50s kitsch that was one of Disney’s dumber efforts and I’d say it lives up to that.  The film is set in the most suburban of suburbs and has the exact same aesthetic as the 50s family sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” that would become rather loaded in the years after for their rather plastic depiction of bland white Americana.  Fred MacMurray stars as a slightly silly family patriarch, which is a bit different from the darker roles I was used to seeing him in in Billy Wilder movies, but I think this is more representative of the kind of stuff he did for most of his career.  Old Yeller star Tommy Kirk plays the lead here.  Kirk was another one of the kid stars that Disney scooped up and then abandoned, in this case because they found out he was gay and possibly a barbiturate addict, and he would spend the rest of his career making moribund beach blanket movies like the MST3K film Catalina Caper.  Here he’s a pretty all-American wholesome teen character though.

The film’s rather dopey premise is that the Tommy Kirk character stumbles upon a magic ring which makes him randomly turn into a sheepdog owned by one of his neighbors (he doesn’t switch roles with the pooch, the real dog just disappears when this happens) and then deals with that while going through his mundane suburban issues.  While in dog form the boy still has full consciousness and is able to speak English but needs to avoid giving himself away because his dad is allergic to canines and is generally hostile toward them.  The effect of him talking while in dog form is done with some sort of animatronic puppet and I suspect the film was shot in black and white in order to make that visual effect look better.  The whole thing pretty much goes how you’d expect it to… until the protagonist finds out that his neighbors are spies not unlike Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who are plotting to steal government secrets from a nearby rocket facility in order to sell them to the Russians… didn’t really see that coming.  But even with this development the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead maintains its comedic tone… but it’s not very funny, or at least it’s not any more funny than those bad “Leave it to Beaver” sitcoms that it was modeled after and the whole transforming dog bit doesn’t really do enough to make this feel like actual cinema rather than a glorified TV show.  Not recommended as anything other than a historical curiosity.
** out of Five

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

My knowledge about this movie consisted of exactly one piece of trivia: it was Sean Connery’s one big role before he became a superstar as James Bond.  Saying it’s “his” movie is probably an exaggeration, he’s billed third here but it’s a factoid that comes up from time to time in discussions of the actor’s career and were it not for that there’s a pretty good chance I never would have selected this movie for this marathon through Disney’s live action films of the 50s.  The film was based on short stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, a late 19th/early 20th century woman of Irish descent who lived in America for most of her life.  The film is set in Ireland and is meant to be a big celebration of that country that would appeal to Irish Americans who felt warmth for “the homeland” but perhaps not much of a desire to actually go there.  The movie depicts the country in the most stereotypical Disneyfied way imaginable.  Half the cast is speaking in an exaggerated “oirish” accents and everything’s green and filled with shamrocks and all the rest of the touristy shit that actual Irish people hate and make fun of.  Most prominently the “little people” in the title are full on leprechauns.

Much of the plot concerns Darby O’Gill, an old groundskeeper at a local mansion owned by some local lord, who spends most of the movie trying to capture the king of the local leprechauns who continually fucks with the old man.  Darby is a strange choice of protagonist for a family movie given that he is a septuagenarian that kids are unlikely to relate to, which is something that could be made to work in theory but doesn’t here.  Sean Connery plays a young Dubliner who has recently moved to the town and has been hired as Darby’s replacement.  He’s fine.  I doubt the locals were much impressed by his accent but that’s the least of what they’ll be offended by here.  He eventually becomes a love interest for Darby’s daughter, which is a little odd given his future star persona as a sleazy womanizer and some of his real life statements about domestic violence, but I’m sure it would seem like a reasonably sweet romance to people in 1959.  Really the movie is just overwhelmingly lame and kind of pointless.  They seemingly had no real goal here except to make the most Irish movie to ever Irish and give them something to play on TV every St. Patrick’s Day.
*1/2 out of Five

Pollyanna (1960)

“Pollyanna” was a novel written by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913 and became a pretty famous work and sort of sits with books like “Little Women” and “Heidi” as books that are traditionally given to preteen girls.  The book has kind of gained a reputation for being cringingly saccharine, not just from cynical shits like me but from normal people to.  In fact the very name “Pollyanna” has become something of a byword for a sort of unproductive naiveté with people routinely being accused of being “Pollyannaish” which the dictionary defines as a person or idea that is “unreasonably or illogically optimistic.”  Still, it’s considered a classic of American wholesomeness so it was probably not too much of a surprise that Walt Disney would get his mits on it and in 1960 the Walt Disney Company released what was the second major adaptation of the book after a popular 1920 adaptation with Mary Pickford.  To make it they brought in a guy named David Swift, who had been an office boy at Disney in the 1930s but left during World War II and after the war began working in television during the 1950s and was brought back to Disney for this project which he really made it his baby; he wrote the script, co-produced it, and directed the film and got to work with some decently famous actors from outside the Disney stable like Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, and Agnes Moorehead.  For the title character they brought in thirteen year old Hayley Mills, the daughter of the veteran British character actor John Mills, who generally seems to have had a healthier career and life than most of the other child stars that went through this studio.

The plot here is that the titular girl is an orphan who arrives in a small town called Harrington to live at an orphanage owned by her aunt, who is a part of a fairly prominent family in the town.  The film essentially depicts here attempts to establish herself in this town and how the town affects her and how she affects the town.  Given the book’s reputation for sickly sweetness attempts were made to adjust the material to be a little more grounded.  In fact Swift was quoted as saying “in the book Pollyanna was so filled with happiness and light that I wanted to kick her… Now she is shy.”  In theory this is exactly what I’d want to hear from someone making a version of this book and Hayley Mills does make the character a bit more believable.  However, there’s really only so much you can do to make this story non-saccharine and “Pollyanna” even at a 50% dosage is still too much for my tastes, and there’s a good chance that the people who actually like that shit might find it a bit light on the corniness.  I almost wonder if they would have been better off just going all in and making the most sickening movie possible, I still wouldn’t have liked it but I might have at least found it memorable.  Instead what we get feels like a pretty standard period drama/literary adaptation and one that comes to really wear out its welcome at two hours and fifteen minutes.  Not a movie to be hated, but not one I’ll be thinking about much in a week.
** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

Well, that started pretty promising but sort of went downhill from there.  Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were both pretty cool adventure stories that were made on impressive budgets and were generally a lot of fun but then things got a lot more modest and a lot less distinctive.  Old Yeller at least had a certain gravitas but The Shaggy Dog and Darby O’Gill and the Little People were just dumb and Pollyanna was forgettable.  Still, most of these movies had reference points that were worth knowing about and I don’t regret checking them out while they were freely available to me.


Home Video Round-Up 11/5/2020

The 40-Year-Old Version (10/27/2020)

I wasn’t too familiar with the cast of this new indie that debuted on Netflix recently and certainly hadn’t heard of its director/writer/star Radha Blank, who has almost no film credits to her name until now.  But one thing about it that did stand out about it was its title, which is plainly a clever homonym of Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which is eye catching although the movie basically has nothing to do with that other comedy.  The film is actually an old school indie comedy shot mostly in black and white seemingly to evoke the 90s golden age of personal indies being put out by filmmakers like She’s Gotta Have It and Mala Noche.  The film follows a woman who is almost certainly meant to be an alter ego of Radha Blank who is about to turn forty and whose been trying to get work as a playwright with limited success and who considers changing careers to become something of a novelty rapper rather than see her latest play compromised by a clueless white producer.  Blank acquits herself pretty well here both as a screen presence and as a writer and director; I wouldn’t exactly call its look “elegant” but it works quite well for the indie throwback vibe they’re going for.  I’m also not really sure what Blank’s talents would seem like when not playing and writing about a variation on her own biography like she seems to be doing here, but again, for this movie she’s quite good.  I wouldn’t exactly call this a laugh-a-minute comedy but there’s some clever satire to it.  If I have a complaint about it it’s that, like it’s protagonist it’s not sure what it wants to cover.  It doesn’t really commit to being a movie about the life of a struggling playwright or to being about a lady trying to become a rapper at forty or to being a character study about middle age and in the end all these avenues feel like they’re only halfway explored.

***1/2 out of Five

Feels Good Man (10/28/2020)

The documentary Feels Good Man looks at a cartoonist named Matt Furie, who had a modest following with an online comic called “Boy’s Club” about a group of anthropomorphized animals living a post-collegiate slacker experience.  To his initial joy one of these characters, Pepe the Frog, took on a bit of a life of his own as a meme and counter-culture symbol on various image boards and online spaces but then to his horror the character came to be co-opted by some really dark alt-right figures as a symbol for racial hatred and support for Donald Trump.  The film largely picks up long after all of that happened and mostly follows Furie as he tries to make sense out of what happened to his quirky little creation and fight back, first by trying to re-position him as a “peace pepe,” then when he tries to kill off the character, and finally when he just tries to sue people like Alex Jones for copywrite infringement for using the image without permission.  Along the way Furie often looks a tad naïve and in over his head.  A number of experts in hate symbols are brought in to explain the games that the alt-right is playing which is important because this is all some massively online shit that isn’t always going to be overly clear to normies like me who do not really see the appeal of Pepe in either his peaceful or hateful forms and I must say that even in this critical context watching 90+ minutes of alt right material is not fun and you finish the movie feeling like you need a shower as a result.

*** out of Five

His House (10/31/2020)

His House was a movie that sort of snuck up on me.  I had gotten some buzz a Sundance earlier this year but it was picked up by Netflix, who seem to have had a million other things they were prioritizing and they ended up dropping it on their platform the day before Halloween with minimal pre-release marketing.  That’s unfortunate because there’s some very interesting stuff going on in this movie.  The film follows a pair of refugees from South Sudan as they relocate to the UK and are placed in a slightly run down house in London.  Soon though, they start hearing strange noises in the house and seeing things they can’t quite explain.  His House is in its essence a haunted house movie, of which there have been many lately but unlike many recent entries in the sub-genre it largely avoids cheap jump scares and has more of an “elevated horror” interest in exploring its characters’ psychologies and the wide social issue of refugee relocation.  The idea behind the film is not too hard to suss out; the supernatural visions they see in the house are manifestations of how they are metaphorically “haunted” by their experiences back in Sudan and the dangers they faced escaping from there.  First time director Remi Weekes brings a number of interesting visual ideas to the table to bring these horror sequences, which have a distinctly African flair to them, to life although I’m not sure he impresses to quite has the audacious vision that other recent elevated horror debut filmmakers like Ari Astor, Robert Eggers, or Jennifer Kent have.  I’m not sure I’d quite call the movie itself all that terrifying per se and in some ways I’m not sure it’s many interesting ideas fully congeal into an ideal whole, but individually they’re all too compelling to ignore and this is definitely a movie that any fan of sophisticated horror should give a whirl if nothing else.

***1/2 out of Five

Dick Johnson is Dead (11/1/2020)

Dick Johnson is Dead is a somewhat experimental documentary, not experimental in an avant garde sense but more because large parts of it are sort of staged.  The film was directed by Kirsten Johnson, director of the similarly unconventional doc Cameraperson, which was loved by critics but whose charms were a bit lost on me.  This one was has received a similarly rapturous response and while I certainly think I “got” it more than Cameraperson I’m not sure I’m quite as in love with it either.  The Dick Johnson of the title is Kirsten’s father, a retired psychiatrist who has been diagnosed with dementia but who isn’t too far gone yet.  His condition has his daughter contemplating mortality and comes up with an idea where she would prepare for this by making a documentary in which her father (who is rather gregarious and open to this sort of thing) stages his own death by various scenarios.  The film then sort of becomes its own making of doc as they show how each of these “deaths” is staged using a variety of stuntmen and special effects while also kind of acting as a bit of a showcase for what Dick Johnson is like and what Kirsten’s relationship with him is like.  That’s all very interesting in theory but I also sort of felt like I got “the point” of it pretty quickly and I’m not sure I got too much more out of the movie as it went.  It’s certainly a creative and interesting project that’s worth giving a look, though I’m not sure it’s a movie that necessarily worked for me in the moment.

*** out of Five

Over the Moon (11/5/2020)

It’s been a stressful week, and I needed something light to watch, so I decided to check out this large budget animated film that somehow found its way to Amazon.  The film was animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks but the creative push for the film seems to have come from a company called Pearl Studio, which is a Chinese/American joint venture aimed at making Chinese themed productions for the Western Audience.  They had a similar co-production with Dreamworks last year with the film Abominable and they seem to be going even deeper into Shino-themed trappings for this film which borrows pretty liberally from not overly familiar Chinese folklore.  The animation here isn’t quite at Disney/Pixar levels but it does feel like some legit money was put into it and it’s clearly trying to be a sort of direct competition with mainline Disney.  It’s a full on musical about a kid who goes on an adventure that ultimately helps her come to terms with her difficult family situation, so it’s not exactly breaking new ground on an overall story level, but a lot of the specifics of her adventure (which involves building a spaceship, flying to the moon, and interacting with a moon goddess who is also a pop idol) are quite strange.  Much of the film takes place in such an abstract fantasy world that I did come to be a bit disconnected with it after a while but it remained a pretty visually creative experience throughout even if it’s kind of a hodge-podge of craziness.

**1/2 out of Five

The Trial of the Chicago 7(10/25/2020)

I’ve never really been one to demand escapism from my movies.  I certainly like escapism when I can get it, but it’s not the only think I want from cinema and when movies avoid escapism altogether and tackle pressing social concerns.  But man, the year 2020 is really testing that.  Between the pandemic, the social unrest, and the absolute clownshow that national politics has devolved into I’ve become rather unexcited to watch things that are “relevant” enough to remind me about everything in the world that’s been driving me absolutely insane.  Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 potentially looked like the kind of film that ran the risk of being a little too “relevant” for comfort in a way that it wouldn’t in any other years insomuch as it was about protests turning riotous as well as potentially damaging schisms between moderate and radical factions not getting their acts together in the face of tyranny.  Beyond that, Aaron Sorkin is always a bit of a iffy proposition; sometimes his brand of slightly corny hopefulness is invigorating but sometimes it’s just irksome and with some potentially loaded material like this I wasn’t sure if this was exactly what I wanted at the moment but it wasn’t like I was just going to skip a major movie like this that’s available right in the comfort of my home thanks to Netflix so I decided to give it a shot.

As the title would imply, this film recounts the case the government under Nixon tried to make against eight defendants accused of crossing state lines to incite violence in relation to the riot that broke out at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  Among those charged are the “yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the SDS leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), as wells as the MOBE leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  They are being tried by a young federal prosecutor named Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but defended by (among others) the famous defense attorney Bill Kunstler (Mark Rylance) but will need to contend with a wildly biased judge named Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) who seems to be doing everything in his power to stack the deck against the defendants.  The film essentially plays out like a legal drama both in terms of trial scenes as well as trial prep scenes but there are quite a number of flashbacks to the events of the convention riot as well.

This trial and the incident that instigated it has been covered before cinematically.  There was a pretty widely seen documentary about the trial called Chicago 10 that came out around 2007 and there was also a TV movie called The Chicago 8 which came out around 2012 which appears to have mostly gone unseen.  But the movie that this is most likely to live in the shadow of is not another movie about the incident but Aaron Sorkin’s other famous film which uses legal proceedings as a framing story for a historical event: The Social Network.  That film was of course diluted through David Fincher’s icy vision while this is closer to a straight unfiltered bit of Sorkin for better or worse.  Sorkin certainly takes the situation he’s depicting seriously at least in theory, but this is still very much a film that indulges in his signature rapid fire dialogue and resultant sense of humor.  That’s not to say that the film goes fully into screwball comedy territory but it’s not necessarily a morose bit of political filmmaking you might expect given the unjust situation it’s depicting.  Partly that’s a result of certain characters like Abbie Hoffman being rather irreverent figures and partly it’s because of a certain black comedy caused by this judge’s rather absurd bias that’s on display.

The movie is probably at its best when it’s comparing and contrasting the various characters’ different conceptions about how the anti-war movement is supposed to be conducted.  If nothing else it’s a pretty good showcase of just how annoying Abbie Hoffman could be and how crazymaking it would be to have him as a co-indictee in a trial given the way he would actively provoke the judge and generally makes everything more difficult.  Then there’s David Dellinger, who’s older and more establishment looking than his fellow defendants but is no less radical in his pacifist outlook and then there’s Bobby Seale, who probably shouldn’t have been part of the trial in the first place and tends to respond to authority with a lot more justified paranoia.  Finally there are the SDS members Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, who are basically the audience surrogates insomuch as they are of a representative age and background of student activists while lacking in the anachronistic counter-culture of the yippies but they prove to be slightly more complicated figures as the film goes on.  Watching it I couldn’t help but equate a lot of this to the similar divisions that exist between the more mainstream factions of the Democratic Party and the more Leftist “Bernie Bro” edge and fill up my Twitter feed with frustrating arguments.

With that in the back of my mind I can’t help but be a little skeptical about how the movie ultimately found itself reconciling these worldviews at a certain point and also felt like it never quite reckoned with the ultimate failures of these activists.  The protest at the ’68 convention certainly didn’t help Humphrey or anyone else beat Nixon in the election and the Vietnam war would continue on for seven more long years before ultimately fizzling out for reasons that likely weren’t all that directly related to the counter-culture anti-war movement.  Given that I found the moment of rather cheap uplift that the film chose to end on is a bit out of step with where the country was really at in time being depicted.  In fact I’d say that ending is also the movie at its worst cinematically as Sorkin really just indulges all his corniest instincts in the last ten minutes or so and Daniel Pemberton’s rather basic score really starts blaring to rather manipulative effect.

Having expressed those issues, I think I’m still going to recommend The Trial of the Chicago 7 without too many reservations.  Look, it’s 2020 and we’re starved for real prestige cinema and this thing is filling quite the gap.  Sorkin not be the most creative and elegant filmmaker but he remains a writer who can present a story in a fun and accessible way and he’s also assembled a really big and impressive cast and recreates a lot of these events effectively.  My worries that it would remind me too much of the world around me in a depressing way were largely unfounded, though under normal circumstances that probably wouldn’t be a good thing.  Ultimately I think this is a fairly shallow movie about the past which will fit well with boomer self-conceptions but I find it hard to get too grumpy about that in the October of 2020.  Definitely a movie worth your time, especially as a Netflix watch, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be returning to it and it could have been much more.

***1/2 out of Five