Given how pretty much all the cinematic big hitters have been punted to next year, Netflix is throwing everything it has at the 2021 Oscars. But behind Mank, Hillbilly Elegy and all the others, there's a dark horse. Even in the ludicrously stacked ensemble of The Trial of the Chicago 7, Michael Keaton's eyebrow stands out.
Keaton's cameo in Chicago 7 lasts all of about 10 minutes, throughout which his left eyebrow is permanently levered up. As Ramsey Clark, he drops into the story at just the point when things are looking particularly sticky for the defendants, who need his testimony to prove that their trial is a politically motivated stitch-up. Clark, though, sitting behind his desk eating nuts ostentatiously, is bound over not to take the stand. No can do, say the lawyers. Nope. His hands are tied.
The eyebrow, though, says different. In this crucial scene, it does most of the heavy lifting. You might have assumed that Eddie Redmayne's Tom Hayden was the Aaron Sorkin surrogate in this film, with his stolid belief in using the system to reform it, and in slow democratic change over revolution, and in the highest ideals of American politics and all that sort of thing. He is, but there's a second one: that eyebrow.
That's Aaron Sorkin's eyebrow, grafted onto Michael Keaton's face. Keaton's whole raffishly reckless schtick feels like an airdrop from the future, parachuting in to shift the plot along in as charismatic a way possible. But that energy is particularly concentrated in his eyebrow. Unlike everyone else in the film, it seems completely unaware that it's meant to be living in 1969. Actually, it might be the first cinematic example of an eyebrow breaking the fourth wall.
"This is ridiculous!" the eyebrow seems to say. "How on Earth is this justice? I ask you! And all this is happening in America. Viewer: I, too, am shocked and appalled. Good job nothing like this would happen in 2020, hey! I am, of course, employing the trademark sardonic Sorkin wit."
Which could be very irritating, of course, but Keaton gets away with it partly because he's Michael Keaton, and partly because he arrives and leaves so abruptly. It's brief, but given how powerful its appearance is, there's a very strong case for an Oscar tilt. This could be a legacy win for Keaton and his eyebrow, who managed not to pick up any Oscars during their first run of hits (Batman, Beetlejuice) or in their second (Spotlight, Birdman), and the Academy loves retrospectively giving big actors and directors a gong for sub-par work out of embarrassment at missing their good stuff. The eyebrow, one hopes, will use this as a springboard for more interesting work to come.
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