Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in the Belleville News-Democrat on Oct. 10, 2010. We are running this review because of its resurgence streaming on Netflix.

By Lynn Venhaus
For the News-Democrat

What It’s About: In a clash of acting titans, two powerhouses go mano a mano in “The Judge,” an over-stuffed yet unpredictable dysfunctional family-legal drama.

Oscar winner Robert Duvall (“Tender Mercies”) is a respected judge who squares off with his estranged son Hank, played by Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), who reluctantly oversees his defense during a murder trial.

Hank is a slick Chicago lawyer who reunites with his small-town Indiana family after his mother dies. His older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) was a promising ball player whose career prospects were cut short after an accident. His younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) is a developmentally disabled adult living at home.

The tension is thick, underlining simmering resentments and long ago cold shoulders. You’ll find out why when we head into the courtroom, when the cantankerous dad is accused of a hit-and-run accident he doesn’t remember.

Performances: The joy of watching Robert Duvall create an authentic senior citizen to add to his august body of work is reason enough to see this relentlessly hyped film. Add the always electric Robert Downey Jr. and sparks fly.

Since “Iron Man” in 2008, Downey has spent considerable time being action hero Tony Stark, a great screen presence with his jocular manner and rapid-fire verbal riffs. He carries off sarcastic humor like few can, and you know he will make you laugh.

But the guy has serious acting chops. Since his first Oscar nomination for “Chaplin” in 1992, he left the Brat Pack movies behind, and has delivered interesting work (“Zodiac,” “The Soloist,” “Wonder Boys”), fulfilling the promise of his breakout “Less Than Zero” (1987).

So, “The Judge” is one of his smart roles, a touch of scoundrel, but also a smidgeon of the lost boy. The only drawback is that he talks so fast during frequent motor-mouth deliveries that he can’t always be understood.

They are joined by always intriguing Billy Bob Thornton as smug prosecutor Dwight Dickham, noteworthy Vincent D’Onofrio (“Law and Order: Criminal Intent”) and Vera Farmiga, under-utilized as the girl who got away. There is also a surprising turn from Dax Shepard (“Parenthood”) as a bumbling, inexperienced trial lawyer.

What Works: While the characters each have dense backstories, this story is too sprawling. The film is at its best when focusing on the complexities of father and son relationships.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography has a nostalgic feel to it, warmly lit to evoke memories of days past. The score by Thomas Newman is appropriately wholesome, with the surprise of Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist” over the credits

What Doesn’t Work: Director David Dobkin (“The Wedding Crashers”) is in over his head. He is heavy-handed, cramming way too much in multiple story threads, and then under-serving the genuine moments. He needed to pick a tone and stick with it, and his pacing was poor. There is no value whatsoever in being more than two hours’ long.

Vera Farmiga, as Hank’s ex-girlfriend who runs the local diner, seems to be a contrived convenience, and was extraneous to the plot.

Dobkin is responsible for the story that the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (“Gran Torino”) is based on, and felt the need to insert tornado-like weather as a metaphor. Oh boy.

Substituting picturesque Massachusetts for bucolic Indiana wouldn’t have been that jarring had it not been for the green mountains on view. Say what? Filmmakers might have researched topography of Indiana.

“The Judge” is the kind of film that is entertaining despite being emotionally manipulative. And the performances keep you watching.

Stars: Two and a half
Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Leighton Meester
Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Length: 2:21

By Lynn Venhaus

A civics lesson for the ages, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s riveting account of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a potent examination of injustice during a politically charged time of civil disobedience. Through the lens of a riveting courtroom drama, the film is an acting showcase and one of the best films of the year.

And because the maestro is Sorkin, the film is also a discourse on cultural revolution and political theater, all while working in the confines of a true story. Because it is not a documentary, some of the timeline jumps around and incidents are embellished, but trial transcripts are used, along with archival footage, to create an authentic portrait.

In August 1968, several activist groups opposed to the Vietnam War converged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by radical revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), led by older conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).  Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leader of the Black Panthers, is also present but not connected with the others. They, along with eventually acquitted Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), are the Chicago 8. Seal’s case would later be declared a mistrial, thus leaving seven.

Demonstrators violently clashed with police in and around Grant Park, which was captured on live television and the reason for a courtroom circus the next year after Nixon was elected President. Using a new law, the eight are charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. 

The infamous 1969 trial, orchestrated by Nixon’s Department of Justice, is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). The legal eagles are civil rights attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Ben Weinglass (Leonard Shenkman) for the defense and Justice Department prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie).

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

The casting is impeccable. Sorkin’s breakthrough was the play “A Few Good Men” in 1989, later a movie. Known for “The West Wing,” he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.” With his fast-paced dialogue and customary insightful monologues, Sorkin’s original screenplay now vaults to leading awards contender. It is a marvel of nuance and first amendment passion, focusing on change – how people make it happen.

Sorkin immerses us in the atmosphere of the ’60s volatile times, as dissent grew throughout the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, followed by the killing of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy two months later. More anti-war activists took to the streets when the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated. But “the Establishment” attacked free speech and peaceful protests, fearing anarchy and widespread unrest.

His dialogue, nimbly spoken by this extraordinary ensemble, astutely advances character development and shows the duality of law – when it works in a courtroom, and when it doesn’t. With such a large cast, Sorkin has managed to bring out the distinct personalities of the iconoclast rebels.

Sorkin has shrewdly opted to concentrate only on the present with the major defendants, providing little backstory to their rise as movement leaders. While everyone snugly fits their roles, stand-outs are Eddie Redmayne as fervent Tom Hayden, convinced working inside the system is the right conduit for progress, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the mouthy disrupter Abbie Hoffman, who mastered media for his own purposes. Their different approaches lead to confrontations but ultimately, they are on the same page.

As the clearly biased tyrannical judge, Frank Langella is chilling as a man who thinks he does not discriminate but his cruelty to Seale suggests otherwise. Mark Rylance, Oscar winner for the 2015 “The Bridge of Spies” and three-time Tony Award winner, will likely score nominations for his remarkable portrayal of impassioned lawyer William Kunstler.

Abdul-Mateen II, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “Watchman,” is powerful in his silence as Seale and bears the brunt of the injustice during the trial. Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966, was just in Chicago to give a speech and did not know the other guys.

Alex Sharp excels as the dedicated Rennie Davis, who is less flashy than the other counterculture activists but whose involvement is significant nonetheless. Sharp won a Tony Award for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2105.

Sorkin had only directed once before, 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” an uneven but interesting account of a true story. For this legal drama, he keeps the courtroom scenes taut and the street scenes intense and chaotic.

Sorkin gets terrific assistance from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot last year’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” and editor Alan Baumgarten, known for other Sorkin films and “American Hustle.” Composer Daniel Pemberton scores the action with the right tempo without using popular protest music from the times.

As an important acknowledgement of this case in America’s evolution, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” conveys precious civil liberties. And demonstrates what makes compelling stories – Americans speaking out, what inspires revolution and why civil discourse matters.

Sasha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a courtroom drama based on real events, directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. It starts Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie and Ben Schenkman. Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug us, The runtime is 2 hr. 10 min. Lynn’s Grade: A
Available in select theatres Oct. 9 and on Netflix Oct. 16.