Suddenly, 2020 is a year of imponderables.
Will there be a Cannes Film Festival? Given the coronavirus-induced cancellation of SXSW, MipTV, and the AFI Life Achievement Gala, who knows?
Is Marvel’s Black Widow the big spring-summer hit, now that No Time To Die is bumped to November? Maybe, if an April/May release still looks wise after parent company Disney babies Onward and Mulan through a virus-bitten global box office.
Can Joe Biden really power past Bernie Sanders to grab the Democratic nomination in July, and perhaps the Presidency in November? It’s possible, if he can avoid damage from too many Hollywood endorsements (remember, Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas and Bette Midler jumped in for Bloomberg just before he quit), and finds enough sanitizer to survive the hazards of a hugging, squeezing, hand-shaking political campaign.
A much smaller imponderable, but one that could stand for a hundred similar conundrums that face the normally uncertain film business in this most uncertain of years, is this: Will a smart, long-planned, potentially topical project like Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7, from Amblin and Paramount, land with the force of Prophecy in an election season that mirrors the revolutionary rage of 1968? Or will the movie be just another footnote to history, sidelined by a cultural narrative that went someplace else?
Matching films to a prevailing mood is never easy. In long-ago March of 2016, it seemed a safe bet that Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation, about a bloody slave revolt, would sweep into the coming awards season as a perfect corrective to racial neglect claimed by the #OscarsSoWhite movement. At Sundance that year, everyone had said so. But details of a past sex case involving the director resurfaced, helping instead to launch what became the #MeToo tidal wave, and leaving the more mild-mannered Moonlight to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Barely three months ago, it looked as if Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, about abuse of an innocent by the FBI and mass media, would capture an audience segment that detects similar abuse among media and law enforcement figures today. I certainly thought so. But the film was tarnished by its harsh portrayal of a female reporter, and missed with viewers who turned out in much larger numbers to see, of all things, the Korean-language film Parasite.
Still, putting aside calamities like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, it’s hard to think of a time when routine socio-cultural certainties like the progress of a political campaign or the safety of a trip to Austin have come so quickly undone—unless, of course, we think back to 1968, when the events in and around Sorkin’s upcoming Chicago 7 took place.
Remember, not until March 31 of that year did Lyndon Johnson, the sitting Democratic president, announce that he would end his campaign for re-election in the face of opposition to the Vietnam War. The shock matched that from the serial withdrawal of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, and then some. Vice-president Hubert Humphrey, an Establishment Democrat and that year’s Joe Biden, jumped in. But events were only beginning to churn. On April 4, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. Two months later, Robert Kennedy, a leading anti-war candidate, was shot in Los Angeles.
Eugene McCarthy, another anti-war candidate, carried his torch into the Chicago Democratic convention, which began on Aug. 26, almost six weeks later than this year’s Democratic gathering in Milwaukee.
The year had no Bernie Sanders; socialism was largely kept out of the convention hall. But in the parks outside, there was alternative energy aplenty—which is where Sorkin’s movie comes in. About 10,000 demonstrators raged against the war (and tried to nominate a pig named Pigasus for president). Some 23,000 police officers raged back. When the mayhem ended, eight activists were put on trial for inciting a riot, and one, Bobby Seale, eventually had his case severed from the rest after being bound and gagged in court for a time, hence the Chicago 8 became the “7” of the current film’s title.
But back to the imponderables. As The Trial Of The Chicago 7 begins to play on the fall festival circuit, assuming the circuit is by then re-assembled, will it feel like a movie ‘ripped from the headlines’? Or will it, after some 13 years in development, have missed its moment? Will raging Bernie Bros be protesting a shut-out by the Democratic Establishment, turning the convention and the streets of Milwaukee into next-generation political theater, and boosting Sorkin toward an awards season hit? Or will they carry their candidate to the battle with Trump? Or will they line up behind Biden, and maybe, down the line, buy a six-pack, stream the movie, and swap stories about what might have been?
I sure don’t know. Nobody does.
But if all else fails, No Time To Die, that postponed James Bond film, will open a few weeks after the election. It’s (almost) a sure thing.