Review: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,’ starring Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella and Michael Keaton

December 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Caitlin FitzGerald, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch and Sacha Baron Cohen in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Photo by Nico Tavernise/Netflix) 

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1968 to 1970, primarily in Chicago and briefly in Washington, D.C., the dramatic film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Eight men accused of inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago go on trial in a case that exemplified the conflicts between the “establishment government” and “radical activists.”

Culture Audience: “The Trial of the Chicago 7″ will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic interpretations of real political and legal events in American history during the Vietnam War, with the stories being unapologetically sympathetic to progressive liberal politics.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Photo by Nico Tavernise/Netflix)

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” might as well have been called “The Showcase of Sacha Baron Cohen.” Although the movie has a big ensemble cast, he ends up stealing the show in his portrayal of left-wing activist Abbie Hoffman. This elevation of Hoffman as the “star” of the story is entirely by design, since “The Trial of Chicago 7” writer/director Aaron Sorkin has a reputation for not allowing actors to improvise in the movies that he writes and directs.

Taking place mostly in Chicago from 1968 to 1970, amid protests against the controversial Vietnam War, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” seems entirely calculated to win as many prestigious awards as possible. “The Trial of Chicago 7” exposes those ambitions too blatantly for it to feel like a truly immersive cinematic experience. The results are that viewers will feel constantly reminded that they’re watching showboat performances and re-enactments rather than being transported to experiencing the genuine emotions of the real-life people involved in this story.

Sorkin (who won an Oscar for writing the 2010 movie “The Social Network”) delivers the type of articulate and verbose screenplay that people would expect from the Emmy-winning former showrunner of “The West Wing.” “The Trial of Chicago 7” has got plenty of sociopolitical commentary that makes conservatives look like villains, and liberals look like heroes. (Sorkin is an outspoken liberal in real life.) There’s also a lot of snappy dialogue with witty one-liners and feisty arguments. And the film editing, which jumps back and forth in time, keeps the tone and pace of the movie very lively.

The trial is obviously the center of the story, but the movie’s non-chronological scenes alternate between showing the trial, showing events leading up to the trial, and showing what happened outside of the courtroom during the six months that the trial took place. It’s a lot to cram into a feature-length movie—”The Trial of the Chicago 7″ clocks in at 129 minutes—so some defendants get a lot more screen time and backstories than others. For the most part, the dramatic retelling of this true story works. However, there are a few scenes that were obviously fabricated for the movie, while the movie also leaves out a lot of uncomfortable truths.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” begins with a brief overview of how the U.S. was affected by the Vietnam War, which was declared by President Lyndon Johnson (a moderate Democrat) in 1965 to save Vietnam from Communism. The Vietnam War escalated into a conflict that American protesters believed was a pointless and expensive war. As thousands of people died in the war, young men in America tried to avoid being drafted into the military. And millions of Americans, especially many of college age, became conscientious war protestors. Vietnam War advocates labeled anti-war protesters as “radicals” and “unpatriotic.”

In 1968, Johnson did not seek re-election. Hubert Humphrey, a former U.S. Senator from Minnesota, became the U.S. presidential nominee for the Democratic Party that year. Humphrey’s conservative Republican opponent was Richard Nixon, a former U.S. vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon would go on to win the presidential election in 1968 and was inaugurated in January 1969.

But before that happened, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago in August 1968 became a flashpoint for increasing civil unrest over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Thousands of protestors gathered in Chicago, resulting in violent clashes between law enforcement (Chicago police and the National Guard) and protestors. The riots lasted for two days and ended with 11 people dead, an untold number of people wounded, and thousands of people arrested.

In April 1968, U.S. Congress passed the Rap Brown Law, to make it illegal for people who live outside a community to incite confrontations in a community where they don’t live. It was intended as an anti-riot law, but critics of the law believed its was just the government’s response to people who wanted to organize widespread protests against the Vietnam War and racial injustice. People who advocated for the law believed that it was necessary to help prevent violence during protests.

Johnson and his administration’s U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to federally prosecute anyone for the violence that happened at the 1968 DNC, which ended up being used as an example of how divided America was over the Vietnam War. However, Johnson’s presidential successor Nixon, who ran for U.S. president on a platform to restore “law and order,” had other ideas on how to deal with the chief protestors who were at the 1968 DNC. The Rap Brown Law was about to be enforced, and certain protestors were going to be prosecuted for it.

One of the early scenes in the movie takes place in 1969, in Washington, D.C., by depicting a meeting called by John Mitchell (played by John Doman), the U.S. attorney general appointed by Nixon. In the meeting with Mitchell are attorneys Richard Schultz (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Thomas Foran (played by J.C. MacKenzie) and Howard Ackerman (played by Damien Young), who is a special adviser to Mitchell. Mitchell tells Schultz and Moran that he intends to use the Rap Brown Law to prosecute the leaders of some of the anti-Vietnam War groups who were at the 1968 DNC.

Schultz, who is a very by-the-book young attorney, can’t understand why this prosecution should take place, because Johnson declined to federally prosecute anyone for the 1969 DNC riots because of a lack of evidence. Mitchell essentially says that he doesn’t care, and he agrees with Nixon in wanting to make an example out of these “radical” left-wing leaders. Mitchell also strongly hints that he has a grudge against Clark (played by Michael Keaton), because Mitchell believes that Clark disrespected him in the transition process when the Nixon administration took over from the Johnson administration.

Mitchell decides that Schultz will be the lead prosecutor in the case, with Foran also on the prosecution team. Schultz is very reluctant to take the job because he feels that he doesn’t have enough experience in handling such a big, high-profile case. However, Mitchell insists that Schultz is the best person for the job and convinces Schultz to be the lead prosecutor in the case. It’s not said outright, but viewers can infer that Mitchell chose Schultz because Mitchell probably felt that Schultz’s youth and inexperience would make it easier for the U.S. government to manipulate Schultz.

On March 20, 1969, eight left-wing group leaders were indicted for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite the 1968 DNC riots, among other charges. Their joint trial began in Chicago on September 24, 1969. Presiding over the trial was Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella) of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The eight men on trial were:

  • Tom Hayden, a former president and prominent leader of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
  • Rennie Davis (played by Alex Sharp), another prominent SDS leader, who is depicted in the movie as Hayden’s best friend.
  • Abbie Hoffman (played by Baron Cohen), co-founder of the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies, a group advocating for counterculture politics and lifestyles.
  • Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong), co-founder the Youth International Party.
  • David Dellinger (played by John Carroll Lynch), a prominent member of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (The MOBE), a conference of anti-Vietnam War groups.
  • John Froines (played by Danny Flaherty), a MOBE member who was eventually acquitted of all charges in the trial.
  • Lee Weiner (played by Noah Robbins), a MOBE member who was eventually acquitted of all charges in the trial.
  • Bobby Seale (played by Yayha Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, an activist group against racial discrimination of black people.

The attorneys for the defendants who are portrayed in the movie are William Kunstler (played by Mark Rylance) and his colleague Leonard Weinglass (played by Ben Shenkman). Kunstler is portrayed as passionate supporter of civil liberties who is fairly even-tempered except when his patience is pushed to the limits. On the prosecution side, Schultz’s courtroom style is more conventional than Kunstler’s style. The supporting lawyers on each side (Foran for the prosecution, Weinglass for the defense) don’t have as much screen time or personality in the movie as the lead attorneys.

And from the beginning, there were problems with Seale being on trial in the first place. He’s depicted as very outspoken in trying to distance himself from the other defendants, by saying that he didn’t even know most of them and certainly didn’t conspire with them. Seale was only in Chicago for four hours to give a speech on one of the days of the 1968 DNC. And in the portions of the trial that are depicted in the movie, Seale vehemently objected on his own behalf because his attorney Charles Garry wasn’t in the courtroom because Garry was in Oakland, California, having surgery.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” portrays the biggest villain in the courtroom as Judge Hoffman, who doesn’t try to hide his bias against the defendants. The movie also shows that the judge had a racist side in how he treated Seale differently from the other defendants. Judge Hoffman didn’t seem to care that Seale’s attorney wasn’t present during the trial. In a harrowing scene, after Seale was jailed for contempt of court, for angrily talking back to the judge, the Black Panthers leader experienced police brutality from cops who were basically given permission by the judge to do whatever they wanted to Seale to teach him a lesson.

After being physically assaulted by these cops, Seale was paraded back in the courtroom in handcuffs and chains, with a gag on his mouth. Although the white defendants also received several contempt of court citations, they were not physically assaulted and humiliated in the way that Seale was during the trial. The movie depicts several people, including lead attorneys Kunstler and Schultz, being shocked and outraged at how Seale was mistreated, but not doing much about it.

In real life, several of the white defendants were heavily involved in the civil rights movement and fighting against racial discrimination. However, the movie focuses more on the white defendants’ anti-Vietnam War protests as their main activism. Racism is mostly used in the movie as a plot device for Seale’s storyline.

Early on in the trial, Kunstler advises Fred Hampton (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, to tell the Black Panthers who are gathered in the courtroom to not sit together. The implication is clear: A bunch of black people sitting together is considered a “threat,” while it’s perfectly okay for white people to sit together. Hampton understands why this request was made, and he tells the Black Panthers in the courtroom to spread out and to take off their hats—not because he wants to be subservient to white racism but because he knows that Seale has a better chance of being acquitted if the Black Panthers in the courtroom aren’t perceived as a “threat.”

And once Seale is out of the picture (a mistrial was declared for Seale on November 6, 1969), the issue of racism also disappears from the movie. Seale’s departure leaves seven remaining defendants, and then the movie really becomes the Abbie Hoffman Show. “The Trial of Chicago 7” makes wisecracking Hoffman out to be the “class clown” who’s also the “hero” of the movie. Hoffman clashes with Hayden outside of the courtroom, so that the movie can show that these seven defendants didn’t have the united front that the public thought they had at the time.

Hoffman’s sarcastic persona is often expressed in how he talks back to the judge. In an early part of the trial, Judge Hoffman announces in court that the record should reflect that he’s not related to Abbie Hoffman. In response, defendant Hoffman shouts out in mock indignation, “Father!”

It’s one of many outbursts that Hoffman makes in the courtroom during the trial. Hoffman also makes fun of the judge when the judge repeatedly and mistakenly uses the name Derringer when referring to defendant Dellinger. Hoffman suggests that the judge remember that Derringer is the brand name of a gun.

While out on bail, the movie shows several scenes of Hoffman on stage in darkly lit places filled with audiences eager to hear what he has to say. The movie frames these scenes as if Hoffman is a stand-up comedian in a nightclub, as he delivers jokes and one-liners about what it’s like to be on trial and what a farce he thinks the trial is. Judge Hoffman is often mentioned in Abbie Hoffman’s rants against the system.

Rubin is portrayed as Hoffman’s loyal sidekick who is effective in a way that calls less attention to himself than Hoffman’s more loudmouthed techniques. However, Hoffman and Rubin’s fiery brand of activism and shenanigans outside the courtroom garner enough media attention that Judge Hoffman wants to sequester the jury. It’s also implied that Hayden resented all the media attention that Hoffman was getting, and that was part of the reason why Hoffman and Hayden clashed so much behind the scenes during the trial.

Although “The Trial of Chicago 7” makes Hoffman the comic relief in the film, the movie also portrays him not as a buffoon but as the savviest one of the defendants. He’s the first one to declare in a meeting with the other defendants, “This is a political trial. It [the outcome] was already decided for us,” while Hayden still wants to believe that the defendants will get a fair trial.

Hayden is less inclined to believe that there are larger political motives behind the trial. “I would love it if the trial wasn’t about us, but I assure you that it is,” he tells a disbelieving Hoffman. Hayden also disagrees with Hoffman’s view that society needs a radical overhaul. During one of their arguments, Hayden yells at Hoffman: “I don’t have time for cultural revolution! I have time for actual revolution!”

Overall, Hayden’s character is portrayed in a less sympathetic light than Hoffman’s character. Hayden is depicted as uptight, somewhat pretentious and someone who isn’t as revolutionary as he claims to be. There are many hints that show that Hayden was using SDS because he had future ambitions to become a mainstream politician. (And if you don’t know what Hayden did with his life after the trial, the movie has an epilogue summary of what happened to all the trial’s main players.)

The most problematic and unrealistic scene in the film is when Hoffman and Rubin, out on bail during the trial, see lead prosecutor Schultz with one of his kids in a park. Hoffman and Rubin call Schultz over for a conversation, which is basically yet another scene to showcase Hoffman being a wiseass. Anyone who knows anything about trials would immediately see that it’s highly unethical and a cause for a mistrial for a prosecutor, while a trial is ongoing, to talk to the trial’s defendants outside of the courtroom without the defendants’ attorneys present.

It’s a scene that’s also out-of-character for Schultz, who made an impression as someone with high standards of playing by the rules, up until this scene. It just doesn’t make sense for prosecutor Schultz to risk having an unethical conversation before the trial is over with two defendants in a public park, of all places, where there would be witnesses who could report seeing this conversation. Not only could this unethical conversation cause a mistrial, but it could also taint Schultz’s career.

And therefore, the only conclusion that viewers can come to when noticing this big legal blunder in the movie is that this scene was concocted as a way to make Hoffman and Rubin have a face-to-face confrontation with one of their trial adversaries outside of the courtroom. It cheapens the movie’s screenplay and it actually insults the intelligence of anyone who knows what the law is when it comes to what U.S. trial participants can and cannot do before the trial is over.

There are also many disruptions during the trial that look exaggerated for the sake of making the movie more dramatic, comedic and tension-filled. There’s a point in the movie where Judge Hoffman loses control of the courtroom in such a way that it looks very fake. Don’t take a drink of alcohol every time Judge Hoffman is seen banging his gavel in frustration because people won’t listen to him, because you might end up with alcohol poisoning.

The costume design and production design for “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are very accurate, but the way the movie is filmed, everything looks like a movie set and everyone looks like an actor playing a role. The riot scenes are filmed in a perfunctory manner, in the way that many other similar Vietnam War-era riot scenes have been filmed in other movies. There’s some real-life news footage spliced in some of the scenes, which will just remind viewers even more how staged the re-enactments are.

And this is very much a “boys’ club” movie, since the few women with significant speaking roles in the film are either playing the role of an office worker, a romantic partner or a “temptress.” Caitlin FitzGerald is the only woman who’s listed as a co-star in the cast ensemble. She plays Agent Daphne O’Connor, an undercover officer who poses as a radical counterculture activist named Debbie, who pretends to show a romantic interest in Rubin so she can get information out of him. Agent O’Connor later testifies for the prosecution in the trial, and the movie makes a big deal out of Rubin being emotionally hurt over being “tricked” by this temptress.

What’s deliberately omitted from “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is any acknowledgment that these so-called “liberal” and “free-thinking” men who were on trial were leaders of organizations that perpetuated a culture of sexism against women. While this movie is busy making Hoffman look like a progressive left-wing hero, it doesn’t show or question why Hoffman couldn’t be bothered to treat women as equals in the activist group that he founded.

Women are certainly seen in the movie’s protest scenes, but they’re only as background extras, along with male protesters. In real life, there were some women who were able to break through sexist barriers and have prominent roles in America’s anti-Vietnam War activism, such as Sandra “Casey” Cason, Judy Gumbo and Robin Morgan, just to name a few of the female contemporaries who at one time or another worked with Hoffman and/or Hayden. But these women, or women who are like them, are completely shut out of the movie.

If you were to believe everything in “The Trial of Chicago 7,” women didn’t come up with any clever ideas or take any leadership roles in organizing these protests or activism in general. It’s a huge blind spot in the movie that erases women’s important contributions to this part of American history and therefore paints a very inaccurate picture. The movie makes it look like men did all the real work behind the scenes, and women just basically answered the phones.

Despite these flaws, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” can be considered entertaining enough because of the performances from the cast members. Baron Cohen is the obvious standout, but Redmayne, Mateen and Rylance also turn in memorable and noteworthy performances. But just like the TV series “Law & Order” shouldn’t be considered a completely accurate portrayal of the U.S. criminal justice system, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” shouldn’t be considered a completely accurate depiction of this notorious case.

Netflix released “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are Many,’ starring Mark Rylance, Damon Albarn, John le Carré, Medea Benjamin, Lawrence Wilkerson, Jesse Jackson and Amira Howeidy

October 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anti-war protesters in London on February 15, 2003 in “We Are Many” (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

“We Are Many”

Directed by Amir Amirani 

Culture Representation: The documentary “We Are Many,” which is about how the 2003 protests against the Iraq war sparked a worldwide anti-war movement, features a racially diverse group of people (white, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) from various countries who talk about the impact of these protests on social activism.

Culture Clash: Many of the people in the documentary say that governments won’t make changes unless enough people protest and demand changes.

Culture Audience: “We Are Many” will primarily appeal to people who like watching political documentaries that have liberal-leaning attitudes about war.

Anti-war protesters in New York City on February 15, 2003 in “We Are Many” (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The documentary “We Are Many” expresses many timeless beliefs about peace being a better alternative to war, but the movie still can’t quite help look outdated in many ways. Directed by Amir Amirani, “We Are Many” was originally released in the United Kingdom in 2015, and didn’t get a U.S. release until 2020. A lot has happened in those five years that have shaken up political systems around the world, including Brexit and the elections of politically conservative presidents or prime ministers in several countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil and the Philippines.

“We Are Many” has a hodgepodge of commentaries from people in politics, science, the military and the entertainment industry who consider themselves to be social activists. It’s a movie that slants heavily in the direction of progressive liberal ideals, so people who are already inclined to have these beliefs are more likely to watch this documentary, which tends to have a “preaching to the converted” tone.

The overall concept of “We Are Many” is that people in the general public outnumber the politicians and other government officials who are in charge of making government policies. And therefore, it’s up to the majority (the people in the general public) to keep these officials in check and protest if these officials aren’t doing what’s in the best interest of the people they serve. The documentary gives a lot of credit to the worldwide protests against the Iraq War for sparking a 21st century movement of anti-war protests that are truly on a global scale in ways that anti-war protests hadn’t been before February 15, 2003: the flagship date when anti-Iraq War protests took place in several countries around the world.

“We Are Many” interviews a lot of talking heads, to the point where it seems a little too overstuffed with people repeating the same beliefs over and over. There are almost no viewpoints expressed from people who disagree with what these pundits are saying. Hindsight can easily say that the now-debunked “weapons of mass destruction” argument as the main reason to declare war in Iraq was a falsehood/mistake that should never have happened.

But it’s quite another thing to take a more analytical approach to explain why war happens instead of forcing a blanket mindset that “all war is evil, no matter what.” Would the Nazi Germans have been defeated if World War II had not happened? If the U.S. Civil War hadn’t happened, how much longer would slavery have been legal in the U.S., considering that the Emancipation Proclamation happened as a direct result of the U.S. Civil War?

As it stands, “We Are Many” focuses on the Iraq War as being an example of a war that was worth protesting. The movie, although it has good intentions, needed better editing so that it wouldn’t seem so scattershot and unfocused. It jumps from people commenting on the 9/11 attacks to people talking about how the anti-Iraq War protests affected the civil uprisings in Egypt to people giving an analysis to how people protested in the United States and Australia to how the war altered political history in the United Kingdom

And because there are numerous people interviewed in the movie, most of their comments are reduced to brief soundbites. Here’s the very long list of people interviewed in the documentary:

  • Damon Albarn, musician/producer (Blur, Gorillaz)
  • Tariq Ali, British political activist, writer and journalist
  • Anas al-Tikriti, CEO/founder of The Cordoba Foundation
  • David Babbs, co-founder of campaign community 38 Degrees
  • Medea Benjamin, Code Pink co-founder
  • Tony Benn, British Politician who served in Parliament for 47 years
  • Phyllis Bennis, writer/analyst/director of New Internationalism Project at IPS
  • Joan Blades, political activist/Huffington Post blogger
  • Dr. Hans Blix, former UN Weapons Inspector
  • David Blunkett, British Labour Party politician/Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough
  • Raffaella Bolini, member of the International Council of the World Social Forum/vice president of the European Civic Forum
  • Richard Branson, business mogul
  • Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard Branson/founder of Marrakech Biennale
  • Dave Burgess, Australian environmentalist
  • Leslie Cagan, activist/writer/Socialist organizer
  • Noam Chomsky, philosopher
  • Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a Member of Parliament for Islington North
  • David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute/chair of the board of the Fourth Freedom Forum
  • Mariah Crossland, former U.S. Antarctic research center at the McMurdo in Antarctica
  • Brian Eno, musician/record producer/theorist
  • Lord Charles Falconer, English qualified barrister/former U.K. Lord Chancellor and first Secretary of State for Justice
  • Bill Fletcher Jr., activist/author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!”
  • Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition/co-author of “A People’s History of London”
  • Danny Glover, actor/activist
  • Tim Goodrich, U.S. Air Force veteran/co-founder Iraq Veterans Against the War
  • Robert Greenwald, founder and president of Brave New Films
  • Hossam Hamalawy, Egyptian journalist/blogger/photographer/social activist
  • Tom Hayden, activist/author/politician
  • Amira Howeidy, Egyptian journalist
  • Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow/PUSH
  • Colleen Kelly, founding member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
  • Ashraf Khalil, journalist/author of the critically acclaimed book “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation”
  • Wael Khalil, Egyptian political activist
  • Ron Kovic, Vietnam War veteran/author
  • John le Carré, author
  • Robbie Liben, former senior computer technician at McMurdo Station in Antarctica
  • Ken Loach, film director
  • Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund
  • Sameh Naguib, Egyptian sociologist at the American University in Cairo
  • Chris Nineham, political activist/founding Member of the Stop the War Coalition
  • Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph
  • Gasser Abdel Razek, human rights activist
  • John Rees, political activist/broadcaster/writer/national officer of the Stop the War Coalition/founding member of Counterfire
  • Mark Rylance, actor
  • Philippe Sands, British and French lawyer at Matrix Chambers/professor of international law University College London
  • Susan Sarandon, actress
  • Will Saunders, astronomer
  • Clare Short, British politician
  • Hani Shukrallah, Egyptian journalist and political analyst
  • Marina Sitrin, writer/lawyer/teacher/editor/author
  • Patrick Tyler, journalist/author
  • Esther Vivas, activist in Barcelona
  • Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and associate director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning
  • Salma Yaqoob, former leader/former vice-chair of the Respect Party/former Birmingham City Councillor/member of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition
  • Andy Young, mechanic at McMurdo Station in Antarctica

Even with this overabundance of people who repeat similar views of being against the war in Iraq, there are some interviewees in the documentary who stand out with their comments.

Goodrich, a U.S. Air Force veteran who in 2004 co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War, says, “I do remember in the steady drumbeat to war, there was one sane voice in the crowd … Colin [Powell] is the only one who’s going to be able to stop this.” Blix says of Powell’s eventual advocation for war in Iraq: “I don’t really want to criticize him, but it was a debacle for him and the world.”

Wilkerson (Powell’s former chief of staff) says about crafting Powell’s now-infamous testimony that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “Yeah, I was in charge of it. And when I finished it and thought about it, I felt miserable, because I thought we had just put a whole array of circumstantial evidence up that can be interpreted in any number of different ways. And we were probably going to war, and it sort of bothered me. And now, I feel like it was the lowest point, as I’ve said before, in my professional and personal life. I wish I had resigned.”

Later in the documentary, Wilkerson says that if George W. Bush (the U.S. president who declared war on Iraq), Dick Cheney (Bush’s vice president) and Donald Rumsfeld (who was U.S. secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006) were ever brought to trial on war crimes because of their decisions for the Iraq War, Wilkerson thinks he should also be one of the people who should be punished for the same crimes. The documentary includes archival footage of Code Pink co-founder Benjamin and other activists ambushing Rumsfeld at public events and yelling at him “War criminal!” before being taken away by security personnel.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister who aligned himself with Bush during the Iraq War, is also described as a villain by many people in the documentary. Corbyn says that Blair took various MPs aside individually and pressured them to be loyal to him about the Iraq War, by asking them, “Are you with me or against me?”

Oscar-winning British actor Rylance says of Blair: “I think should be at the Hague. He should be tried for war crimes against society.” As for author le Carré (who’s known for political thrillers such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), he doesn’t mince words when he share his thoughts about the war in Iraq: “It was the crime of the century.”

The documentary notes: “Tony Blair and all members of his 2003 British Cabinet were invited for interviews. Only David Blunkett, Paul Boateng and Clare Short accepted.” However, only Short ended up in the movie, and she says nothing surprising or revealing because she puts the blame on U.S. leaders for providing the misinformation that led to Blair’s administration siding with the United States. She says that “Rumsfeld, at the first meeting after the attack on the Twin Towers, said, ‘That’s it. Let’s go after Iraq.'”

As for the political activism that resulted from the controversial Iraq War, the documentary puts a lot of emphasis on international peace protests. But “We Are Many” doesn’t fully acknowledge that, for a period of time in the U.S., it was considered very unpopular and unpatriotic to protest against the war because the war was widely perceived as being a war against the terrorists who caused 9/11. The movie doesn’t mention the American country-music trio the Dixie Chicks and how their anti-war/anti-George W. Bush comments damaged their career.

Instead, there’s a parade of people in the documentary who act as if more people in the general public should have known in 2003 that no weapons of mass destruction existed. It goes into a slippery slope of an “I told you so” attitude that’s fueled by hindsight and evidence that came out long after the fact. “We Are Many” has its heart in the right place, but there’s a heavy-handed preachiness to how it expects everyone who’s against war to be out there protesting in the streets, when that’s not necessarily how all concerned citizens express their activism and political views.

Of those who do choose to protest in the streets, musician Albarn says that his experiences from 2003 taught him that one big march isn’t enough. More public protests have to continue for the government to really pay attention. “If you keep coming back, you will make the change,” says Albarn.

Film director Loach adds: “I don’t think the marching itself would’ve stopped the war, because people go home and governments live with that. What they [governments] can’t live with is serious organization. And that’s what we needed out of that.”

Of course, so much has happened in worldwide protests since this documentary was completed—including worldwide movements for the Women’s March, March for Our Lives (against gun violence) and Black Lives Matter—that “We Are Many” seems very outdated when people in the movie wistfully talk about how the Iraq War was the last time that people around the world came together to march for a single cause. However, the sincere beliefs to choose peace whenever possible are the most important aspects of this movie, and those beliefs will never become obsolete.

Area 23a Films and Iambic Dream Films released “We Are Many” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 25, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is July 27, 2021. “We Are Many” was originally released in the United Kingdom in 2015.

Review: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan and Greta Scacchi

August 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” 

Directed by Ciro Guerra

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed frontier settlement in the early 20th century, the drama “Waiting for the Barbarians” features a racially diverse cast of white and indigenous people representing the British military and native people.

Culture Clash:  A magistrate in charge of the settlement resists his government’s attempts at brutal colonialism.

Culture Audience: “Waiting for the Barbarians” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind seeing a frontier film that doesn’t involve epic battles but instead shows the effects of racist imperialism in a more intimate and introspective manner.

Robert Pattinson in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is about the insidiousness of racist colonialism, but people might be surprised to find out that it’s not the kind of movie filled with soldiers stampeding through an area to conquer the land and people. Instead, “Waiting for Barbarians” is more of a meditative character study where many of the scenes are slow-paced and the movie’s impact comes gradually rather than hitting viewers all at once. People are either going to appreciate this less predictable approach to telling this story or they’re going to dislike it if they’re expecting something more conventional.

Ciro Guerra directed “Waiting and Barbarians,” which is based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name. Coetzee also wrote the movie’s screenplay. The movie’s slow pacing is indicative of life on an isolated settlement, but there are some moments in the film (particularly in the scenes that take place outdoors) that have some dramatic visuals that are quite suspenseful and emotionally riveting.

The story’s central character is an unnamed British magistrate (played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance), who’s in charge of an unnamed frontier settlement in a desert area in the late 1920s or early 1930s. (For the purposes of this review, this character will be called the Magistrate.) The Magistrate, who is not married and has no children, is a mild-mannered leader who has been living peacefully among his colleagues and the indigenous people in the area. One of his trusted co-workers is a lieutenant (played by Sam Reid), who willingly obeys orders.

It’s established early on in the story that Magistrate is a pacifist who doesn’t believe that his home country should kill and torture the natives in order to have control of the area. He doesn’t like to call the indigenous people “barbarians,” as his fellow countrymen call them. Instead he calls the indigenous people “natives.” And the Magistrate doesn’t hesitate to correct people who call them “barbarians,” because he thinks it’s a racist and derogatory word for the indigenous people.

The Magistrate’s relatively tranquil life is disrupted one spring day when a pompous bureaucrat named Colonel Joll (played by Johnny Depp) arrives to complete an inspection of the settlement. The biggest clue that this story takes place sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s because Colonel Joll is wearing a new invention: sunglasses. He likes to show and explain this new invention to anyone who asks about it.

Colonel Joll isn’t a member of the military. He works for the police bureau of state security. And he isn’t just there for an inspection. He wants to interrogate the indigenous people in the area about their rumored plans to attack and start a war with the white colonial settlers. And he drops some not-so-subtle hints to the Magistrate that his interrogation methods include torture.

The Magistrate isn’t too worried that there will be an attack. He says, “Once in every generation, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. It’s the consequence of too much ease.” But Colonel Joll doesn’t respect the Magistrate’s laid-back approach to leading the settlement. And the Magistrate soon finds out how sadistic Colonol Joll is when several indigenous men, including some in the local jail, end up brutally tortured by Colonol Joll and his minions.

Colonel Joll leaves the area, much to Magistrate’s relief. And then, a mysterious young indigenous woman (played by Gana Bayarsaikhan) shows up at the settlement during the winter. She doesn’t have a name in the movie, which only identifies her as Girl, but she has obviously been tortured. Her broken ankle hasn’t properly healed, she’s mostly blind, and she has scarring on her face that was made with a heated fork that was used in the torture.

The Magistrate tells her that vagrants aren’t allowed in the settlement, but he has compassion for her and lets her stay in the settlement in exchange for her doing work there. It’s also hinted a little later in the story that he’s sexually attracted to her, but he’s too much of a gentleman to make any moves on her. However, he invites her to live with him on a platonic basis, and he starts giving her leg massages.

It isn’t long before she’s sharing the same bed with him—not as his lover but as a close companion in a situation where two very lonely people without family have turned to each other for emotional comfort. She opens up to the Magistrate a little bit about her past, including her experience being tortured, and she tells the Magistrate that she eventually wants to go back to her people in her original home several hundred miles away. It would

This living arrangement inevitably causes gossip amongst the white colonials in the settlement, including a widowed grandmother named Mai (played by Greta Scacchi) who seems to be attracted to the Magistrate. Meanwhile, a British military visitor to the settlement asks the Magistrate why the native people in the settlement seem so unhappy. The Magistrate answers, “It will take years to patch up the damaged Joll did in a week. They still think of us [colonials] as visitors, transients.”

The last half of the movie involves a fateful trip that the Magistrate takes, the return of Colonel Joll, and the arrival of a Brit named Officer Mandell (played by Robert Pattinson), who makes his views on colonialism very clear. All of the cast members do a good job in their believable character roles, but Rylance’s steady, often quiet portrayal of the Magistrate is the emotional heart of the story.

People who know that Depp is in the film might expect him to play an over-the-top flamboyant character. There are elements of flashiness in Colonel Joll’s demeanor, but his menacing evil is more controlled. He’s not the type of villain to have raging temper tantrums. His icy personality is a true reflection of his cold-blooded detachment from the mayhem and torture that he inflicts. As such, people who are expecting Depp to play the type of kooky protagonist (and leading role) that he tends to have in his movies might be disappointed that he has a supporting role as a villain who’s only in this movie for about 20 minutes.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” gets its title from the paranoia that the colonials feel about waiting for the native people to attack them, because the colonials know that they have invaded the native people’s territory. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the racism and torture that were committed in the name of colonialism, but it doesn’t have a traditional narrative of groups of people rising up against each other. “Waiting for the Barbarians” might frustrate or bore people expecting an action-packed war movie. However, the movie gives some compelling insight into one man’s resistance to racist colonialism and how this struggle wasn’t necessarily fought on a battlefield.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Waiting for the Barbarians” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.