October 28, 2020
As the movie theaters close up and (for now) fade away, we turn to our mighty televisions for cinematic satisfaction and distraction.
We scan the New Arrivals sections on our streaming services, hoping for some lost gem or some great new release that a studio decided to push to streaming.
I feel it’s safe to say that this past week of at-home viewing belonged to Sacha Baron Cohen, who starred in two very different, equally hyped films.
First up is Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by the great Aaron Sorkin and featuring Baron Cohen as legendary activist Abbie Hoffman. In this historical ensemble piece we see SBC playing it straight. No pranks. He is the comic relief of the film, but he’s also tasked with some very serious scenes that demand an incredible amount of nuance.
And then we have Amazon Prime’s much less serious (though equally political) second Borat film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with SBC’s Borat character, he’s an unthinkably naive “journalist” from Kazakhstan who comes to the U.S. and time and time again finds himself in the position to put Americans in unusually uncomfortable situations. Everything is filmed as if it were real, and we never quite know what is real and what is staged. What we do know is that almost every other “character” in a Borat film is usually not in on the joke.
Both are worth watching and, yes, both are flawed. Trial ultimately feels too hopeful (Sorkin’s Achilles’ heel) and features a weak third act that wraps up as if the production suddenly ran out of funding.
On the other hand, Borat simply suffers from a mysterious dichotomy of reality.
That being said, I recommend both. Trial is the kind of movie that will have you scouring Wikipedia to fact check and research both the events and the real-to-life characters. Like all Sorkin scripts (aside from maybe Moneyball), it features snappy, too-witty dialogue, deep pop culture references, and endlessly quotable punchlines that, to varying degrees, could enter the zeitgeist.
Despite its third act flaws, The Trial of the Chicago 7 easily stands as one of 2020s most notable films so far in my estimation, and could very likely rack up some Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay and possibly Best Supporting Actor nominations for Eddie Redmayne, SBC, and Mark Rylance, all of whom give powerhouse performances. Rylance, in particular, is incredible.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, on the other hand, will not be getting any Oscar nominations. I think it’s the kind of work that will have minimal impact now, but over time, as we are more removed from the period it “documents,” should gain relevance and eventually be considered something of a cult classic. Mostly, though, it will add nicely to the conversation around SBC as one of the most creative comic minds of his generation.
For the unfamiliar, here are some other SBC films worth checking out: Ali G Indahouse; Borat: Cultural Learnings of America; Bruno; Hugo; Who is America?; and The Dictator. Not exactly a sprawling filmography, but certainly a potent one.
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