The Trial of the Chicago 7: Aaron Sorkin wants to Remind us he Makes “Important” Movies Too

The Chicago 7 boys, deciding which one of them gets to submit themselves for lead actor at the Oscars

I think I’ve finally made up my mind on where I stand with Aaron Sorkin. He’s often known as someone you’re either all-in on or completely out on; either you love him or hate him (“We don’t need two metaphors; that’s bad writing. Not that it matters.”). I think, at this point, I have to say I fall in the middle, but maybe it’s not that simple. After watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that I think I like Sorkin the most, when he’s dealing with lower stakes.

I’ve never been into The West Wing or The American President because the subject matter is already so grandiose and weighty, that when Aaron Sorkin comes along and pumps it up even further, it can be a little too much to handle. But when he’s dealing with the front office of a struggling baseball team (Moneyball), the rise of Apple computers (Steve Jobs), or the world of underground, celebrity poker (Molly’s Game), he’s able to raise these much lower stakes into feeling like the weight of the world rests upon them and turns what should be a snooze-fest into an absolute thrill ride. I mean, he took the dull, legal depositions surrounding the founding of Facebook and turned it into a Shakespearean duel of the minds. The man knows how to make you think the story he’s telling is the most important story in the world.

So, when he takes subject matter that truly does matter, like Chicago 7, I almost get a little bit of a headache when the subjects, who actually have weighty implications behind their actions, get the Sorkin treatment and are elevated to an even higher level of duty. It all just becomes so grand. It’s like in PacMan when you go so far in one direction, you end up all the way back on the other end of the screen; sometimes Sorkin can compound his more important material so much with his own pompous writing style, that it all becomes too much and leaves the audience feeling like it’s a bit cheesy. Having said that, this movie is good. It’s real good. It’s just pretty clear that Sorkin should stick to writing.

I know that’s a pretty hacky take: keep the writer in the writer’s room and out of the director’s chair. But it should be considered. Had Sorkin started directing earlier in his career, then fine, let him have at it, because he’d be better at it at this point but since he’s only begun directing with his last two movies, what we end up with is a guy who is much more talented on the page than he is in the chair. The film is a little static and visually dull. It’s a lot of pointing the camera at one person at a time and letting them speak and while that isn’t the biggest deal in the world, it’s just clear that he has no signature style. Folks like Bennet Miller, David Fincher and Danny Boyle have been able to take his scripts and spin them into some visually creative works of art, but Sorkin himself just isn’t there yet. I imagine he’ll get there one day but I’d rather he hand off his screenplays to folks with more experience than keep taking at-bats for himself. Now we’ll never know what Edgar Wright’s version of Molly’s Game looks like or Spielberg’s Chicago 7.

JGL is back from his Hollywood hiatus with series of thankless roles in Netflix movies

Chicago 7 is one of Sorkin’s hokiest movies yet. I imagine the original drafts of all his screenplays have the same amount of cheese, but with oversight from experienced directors, they’re able to work with him to cut out some of the more naively-optimistic moments he’s so fond of. It’s really a classic Judd Apatow-esque case of “the writer-director is too in love with their own work to change any of it,” and seeing as Netflix is famous for giving so few notes to big name talents, as they don’t want to ruffle any feathers because they’re just happy to have them aboard, there just doesn’t seem to be anyone in the room to tell him that what he’s shooting is a little cheesy.

But again, I like this movie! I can’t believe I like this movie! It has Eddie Redmayne and I really don’t get what he’s all about and yet, he works really well. I went from rolling my eyes the first time he showed up to saying “fuck yeah, Eddie Redmayne” by the time the credits rolled. I’m shocked by that. Truly shocked. I also find Sacha Baron Cohen pretty hit and miss in more dramatic work, but dammit, he fucking works in this movie. He works really well. And I’m always down for John Carroll Lynch to get work, even if he does somewhat get the short end of the stick here.

It’s also an extremely lukewarm take to say Michael Keaton is great, but Michael Keaton is great, and I’m always so glad to see someone take Sorkin’s dialogue and play it understated. That’s an actor with vision and restraint right there; while everyone else wants those juicy Sorkin monologues to launch them onto the stage at the Oscars, Keaton went in the opposite direction, so much so he almost gives off the sense that he didn’t want to be there. You da man, Keaton.

I get why Sorkin wanted to make this movie: it’s a chance to get back into the courtroom where he can write those back-and-forths that snap like pop rocks in your mouth and he can do that while drawing attention to an important cause. I’m all for that. But, now that he’s gone and made his importantissue-driven film, I urge him to please, please go back to writing stories that don’t necessarily matter as much in the grand scheme of things but feel like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders when he’s putting their story to paper.

The Time Has Finally Come to Take a Stance on Birdman (because I feel like it now)

Let’s end the debate that no one cares about anymore from 2014… Birdman: brilliant farce or pretentious mess? I’m gonna do my best to actually take a side and not just say “well, it’s a little bit of both. Okay, thanks for reading; sorry I didn’t even take a firm stance!” But the problem is, on my latest re-watch, I was really enthralled with the movie, but I also hesitate to say anything Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu makes is brilliant because he is such a pretentious piece of shit, who is outrageously impressed with himself. But I think here, he is making an honest attempt at satirizing people like himself (namely through Edward Norton’s character). And that’s why it’s hard for me to take a firm stance here because the movie itself is also a little divided. At times we’re meant to think Norton’s pretentious theater performer is a whiney little try-hard who thumbs his nose at everyone else but then at other times, it wants us to look at him and say, “well he is an artist, and the rest of these frauds aren’t.” That’s what makes this so difficult.

Even larger themes in the movie play both sides. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is plagued by his inner voice, channeled through the Birdman character, throughout the film, urging him to give up on his aspirations for artsy bullshit and go back to making superhero movies. Most of the time the film wants us to root for Riggan to shrug that temptation off and continue on making theater but then at other times it asks us “is there really anything that wrong with liking a campy action movie?” Once again, hard to take a side on a movie that seems to be playing both sides at every turn.

Quick aside: It’s actually interesting to remember when this movie came out.

During the press tour for the movie, Iñárritu constantly spoke at length about his apathy and borderline disdain for space movies and comic book movies, saying that they were too vapid to be as influential on the culture as they were. He went as far as to say that the Bush administration was heavily influenced by superhero movies, seeing America as the hero and the Taliban as some kind of dastardly supervillain that needed to be demolished.

What’s crazy to me is that Birdman only came out in 2014… looking back at that time period, we were only beginning our societal superhero craze. The Nolan Batman movies were just barely in the rearview, the DC Universe had barely even launched and then subsequently crashed and burned, we only still had the original six Avengers… Age of Ultron hadn’t even come out yet, let alone the insanity of Infinity War Endgame. There were no outrageously kooky characters like Ant Man, or Dr. Strange; the irreverence of Guardians of the Galaxy had only just been released. There were no R-Rated superhits like Deadpool or Logan that were even able to garner awards attention. Other than Robert Redford in The Winter Solider, we hadn’t yet seen actors with such regard as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Angela Bassett play around within the Marvel universe. Just a few years after this movie’s release, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, something that was previously unthinkable.

Superhero movies only got bigger, crazier and, above all, more powerful in the time since Birdman’s release. It would probably be hard for Iñárritu to fathom them being any more prominent than they were in 2014, and was likely predicting their downfall, so I can only imagine what he might say about them now.

So, let’s go through and decipher how much of this movie is brilliant and how much of it is pretentious bullshit.

The ensemble is great. Everyone knows that. These actors are all doing great work. Not much more can be said about that (well, probably a lot more can be said about that… like tons more). I do feel bad for Andrea Riseborough, who gets the short end of the stick here. Her character is poorly defined and doesn’t evolve much over the course of the film. While everyone else is a fully realized character, she is oddly ill-defined; all we really know about her is that she’s an actress who is kind of dating Riggan and it’s not going well. I hate to say the character could have been cut… but she really only seems to exist to round out the cast a little bit more.

The movie caught a lot of attention for being a seemingly brilliant, self-aware critique of Hollywood actors, specifically ones like Keaton, who struggled to find their creative identity after gaining fame from action movies, but that’s not so much what I’m drawn to. The real brilliance comes in the form of the aforementioned Birdman voice that takes the piss out of all the would-be pretention that Riggan attempts to embrace. That character-within-a-character is the single stroke of brilliance that keeps you smiling throughout. He is the reminder that no matter how proud you are of whatever seemingly important thing you accomplish, realistically, no one gives a shit. People just wanna see cool shit. They wanna see something cool and take a picture of it and show off to everyone else that they saw some cool shit; that’s it. No one cares that you finished your novel, won an award or got your PhD. People will politely applaud but at the end of the day, they don’t give a shit. It’s so seemingly simple and obvious but it’s brilliant.

The absolute standout scene comes at the climax when Riggan nearly lets Birdman take over completely and embraces his role in life as a movie star. He doesn’t need the approval of a bunch of theater douchebags, he towers above those people. It’s an incredible sequence and genuinely very funny.

I know the big takeaway from this movie was the Emma Stone monologue where she takes three minutes to spell out the entire point of the movie: at the end of the day, nobody matters and eventually no one remembers you. It’s nice to know that Iñárritu is willing to admit this about even himself but at the end of the day, this scene is about as on-the-nose as it gets.

There’s also Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife. She’s a great addition as always but she brings a much-needed non-showbusiness perspective to the movie. The whole thing is a little too deep in the weeds on all the showbusiness stuff. Showbiz people are exhausting. All they know how to do is talk about showbiz and how good they are at showbiz and what they’re doing next in showbiz and which important people they know in showbiz. Fuck off. But every now and then, in comes Amy Ryan to breathe some fresh air into the movie as just a normal fucking person who can gently tell Riggan that there’s a world out there and maybe, just maybe, his whole life doesn’t hinge on whether or not his stuffy Broadway play for a bunch of stuffy, rich, white Broadway attendees is a success. You can be supportive and encouraging but also keep someone’s feet on the ground.

This is the pinnacle of brilliance. This is 100% how two douchebag actors who only know how to do choreographed theater fighting would square up against each other for a real fight.

So, what’s pretentious about this movie? Honestly, not all that much. A lot of the bells and whistles are pretty superfluous and seem to exist for no reason other than to flex some muscles that no one cares about. Which is actually quite interesting. If the Birdman character exists to let you know that no one cares about all the special little moves you have, why include them in a movie that aims call that kind of thing out?

Why make the movie seem like it’s all one seamless shot? That’s pretty pretentious with almost no tangible purpose? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why give Riggan ambiguously defined mental powers that only he can see but never really come close defining what it’s supposed to mean other than some ill-defined mental breakdown? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why make an eyeroll-inducingly ambiguous ending that exists for no reason other than to get your movie to spread via frustrating word-of-mouth? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock.

And that’s what I can’t stand about Iñárritu: here he is, taking the piss out of his own ego and asking you to laugh at people like himself, who hold their silly, meaningless accomplishments so dear, and yet… he can’t help but toss in a handful of needlessly pretentious flourishes in the movie. You were so close to perfection, why did you actively include the one thing you sought to kick in the nuts? None of it acts as a meaningful repudiation of the movie’s other themes, it’s all just… there… because he couldn’t help it. And that’s why I hesitate to ever call him brilliant but damn if this movie isn’t the closest thing he’s made to perfection.

Birdman is so close to being one of the standout movies of the 2010’s and it probably belongs in that conversation but while its close relationship to pretention is what makes it so special, it can’t help but taste a little bit of the same Kool Aid that its characters drank. 

So… let’s go take a side.


Brilliance: 85%

Pretentious Bullshit: 15%


Birdman is a brilliant satire of ego, the arts and the people that work within it but ultimately, it does come from someone very egotistical who works deep in the arts so it can’t help but blindly become the very thing it aims to mock.