Review – ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a Sorkin Showcase at His Most Uneven – and Occasionally His Best

The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Netflix Official Site
Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s talent often infuriates me.

Not out of the usual envy I can’t help but have for people as gifted at writing as him, but because he seems to rarely find an outlet for his considerable skill as a wordsmith that truly suits him. Although Sorkin’s characters speak a lot, they often don’t feel like they have much to actually say – he sums it up best himself: ” I’m desperate for stories to tell. What I love is the sound of dialogue and the music of dialogue. It’s what I like to write.”

This is both true and not true in his latest political venture, The Trial of the Chicago 7, an undeniably Sorkenese joint with the triumphs and triteness of his storytelling appearing side-by-side. A fictionalisation of the infamous trial where eight (not seven, we’ll get to that later) left-leaning activists protesting Vietnam are arrested and tried for allegedly inciting a riot at the 1968 DNC, it’s a relevant, infuriatingly similar and sometimes exhilarating use of the past to judge the present. It’s also a trial of sorts for Sorkin – whether his uber-recognisable style holds up for such a story and time. It’s maybe more of a hung jury than a verdict either way, but the trial is watchable as hell. (I’ll try and keep legal puns down for the rest of the review.)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Bouquets & Brickbats
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Our “all-star team” consists of a merry band of tangentially-related activists with various goals and personalities, grouped together when they’re all tried under the same umbrella. The immediately noticeable pair are Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two hippie “geniuses in their own special way” portrayed with delightful swagger by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong. Gangbusters with a crowd and even better at making judges want to strangle them, their open disregard of court ethics forms some of Chicago 7’s most engagingly fun times.

Then there’s the more serious students, headed by Eddie Redmayne’s headstrong Tom Hayden, and Alex Sharp’s Rennie Davis, a baby-faced believer in the cause but still worried about un-endearing himself to his girlfriend’s parents. Tom especially will be a Rorschach test for how you feel about today’s politics. For some, it will be his opening speech on how there is “not enough difference to make a difference” between Nixon and the candidate the Democratic Party propped up to challenge him, that lands. For others, it’ll be his climactic argument with Abbie, espousing how purely winning elections is sometimes more important than having something to vote for. He’s a revolutionary who still plays by the rules of a court nakedly stacked against him, but Redmayne is passionately moralistic enough in the role to overcome a certain schizophrenia in Sorkin’s characterisation.

The True Story of 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' | History | Smithsonian  Magazine
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Bringing up the rear are John Carroll Lynch as an amicably dad-like David Dellinger, and recent Emmy-winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an incendiary Bobby Seale, who majorly fuels Chicago 7’s impact. Co-founder of the Black Panther Party and brought in to “scare a white jury” (being barely involved in the riots), he starts the trial without a lawyer, frequently disrupting the proceedings to protest this– and in one horrifying scene ripped straight out of history, is taken out of the room, beaten, and returned to court gagged. It’s treated with the gravity and disgust it deserves, with Seale’s reaction to it still being defiantly, courageously powerful. This results in a mistrial for him (hence Chicago 7), and he swiftly exits a movie he deserved to be so much more prevalent in.

(There are two others on trial, but they are so brutally inconsequential to the plot that I can’t even be bothered to google their names. Their longest lines are a joke about this being “the Academy Awards of protest… an honour just to be nominated.”)

The prologue is fantastic. Set to composer Daniel Pemberton at his most jauntily playful (when not succumbing to annoyingly patriotic trumpets), Sorkin entertainingly drops us into his 1968 with Vietnam, Nixon, talking heads labelling rational people as “radicals”, Walter Cronkite describing Chicago as “a police state”, before introducing our key players and showing the energy they all possess, protesting ideals they’d die for.  Sorkin cleverly, funnily indicates the dissonance between these men’s specific views by using Adam Baumgarten’s editing (across-the-board brilliant throughout) to have them cut into each other’s speeches, with wildly different payoffs to each other’s setups (David telling his son to “very calmly and very politely –” is finished by Bobby elsewhere: “–fuck the motherfuckers up!”)

Movie Review: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
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There’s an excitement, an urgency to this opening that deflates ever so slightly in the subsequent scenes. The lawyers are introduced; a splendid-as-per Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the 7’s man, rubbing up against Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (where has he been!!!) lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz. Gordon-Levitt is great with his material, but his character ultimately represents Sorkin’s loyalty to American institutions, even in a movie with a 5-minute scene dedicated to how the government are utilising them to crush political dissent – Schultz is perfectly willing to send down eight basically-innocent men for charges he knows are worthless, but don’t worry, he acts a bit conflicted about it. Sorkin gives him a moment of honour in the climax that really rubbed me the wrong way.

It’s also here that courtroom antics occasionally overwhelm story. The pieces are all there – notably Frank Langella’s truly cantankerous old bastard of a judge, Hoffman (stressed to be no relation to Abbie). It’s so good to see him onscreen again in a major role. He doesn’t even try to hide his contempt for the 7, instructing to strike whole passages from the record, putting words in sympathetic juror’s mouths when he needs to dismiss them – he represents everything cancerous about the system the 7 protest. When the court scenes overcome pure, unfiltered Sorkinism (smartass dialogue, or people winning points on technicalities), they’re often great. However, there’s some historically-misleading steps taken here – for example, Sorkin feeds Abbie a line about US institutions being “wonderful things” near the end, that’s so insultingly off the real-life man’s views that I couldn’t tell the sound of my groan apart from Hoffman turning in his grave.

Trial of the Chicago 7 Images Reveal Aaron Sorkin's Netflix Movie | Collider
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But Abbie, for all his true and invented theatricality, is the real deal – much alike Bobby in how their refusal to bow down to procedure is in no way not taking their situation seriously. While Tom or David claim to want actual revolution, while trying to achieve it via the decorum and civility of the institution, Abbie externalises the farce this trial is; insinuating Judge Hoffman is his father, or turning up with Rubin in judge’s robes with police clothes underneath, Cohen brilliantly embodies the anarchic spirit (if not all the ideology) of the counterculture hero. Yet a clown isn’t all he has to offer; when a snooty interviewer asks Hoffman his price for ending his revolution, his response – “My life” – is meant with every fibre of his being. Cohen has always been a brilliant performer, but rarely this focused, this nuanced.

The meandering in court is punctuated by some truly thrilling outside sequences; a hill ‘riot’ to protest Hayden’s arrest is told in three intercutting ways – the testimony in court, Hoffman’s irreverent account in a comedy club, and the event itself. With more excellent editing, it’s assuredly paced and built up; the brutality by the police shown unambiguously, their violent tactics being exposed clearly, and our heroes thrown into the thick of it, in all their fear, determination, and bravery. It’s great cinema, showing glimmers of Sorkin coming into his own as a director as well as just a writer.

And when the third act kicks into gear, the momentum becomes nearly unstoppable as the weariness of the trial begins to wash over the 7, and the story finally shakes it’s weightlessness. Michael Keaton arrives for an enjoyable cameo, working in tandem with Rylance and Sorkin to tie the political motives of the trial with a Nixon administration hellbent on curbing any dissent remotely to the left of Thatcher. Things get desperate, and new developments finally bring more nuance to the surface. And we’re given more dimensions to Tom that weren’t obvious in the beginning; after a “reflex” in court gets him into trouble, he’s put in the hotseat for a harrowing, riveting mock-trial by Kunstler privately, after a tape arrives that puts Tom right in the centre of everything.

The Trial of the Chicago 7': Aaron Sorkin takes on Trump's America
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It’s here where you feel the crushing mass of 2020 –police removing nametags to maintain anonymity, the sickening, bloody impact of a baton on a skull, the seeming hopelessness of fighting a truly fascistic institution – and the quiet heroism in doing so anyway, backed up by people who believe with you, in you. Abbie and Tom have their political differences, but when they’re both thrown through a window, they’re thrown together.

Overall, this can’t maintain the rageful urgency of Steve McQueen’s upcoming Mangrove, or the regretful pathos of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, nor does it have the precision that David Fincher brought to Sorkin’s own words in their shared masterpiece The Social Network. Edges are sanded (particularly in undermining the real Hoffman’s radicalism), it sometimes chooses platitudes over confronting uncomfortable truths, and characters are stretched somewhat thin. But the focus is there (if inconsistently), it has something to say, and when it gets around to actually saying it (a million words later), it can be powerful, even moving.

Aaron Sorkin's film The Trial of the Chicago 7 — a timely slice of history  | Culture | The Sunday Times
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Sorkin isn’t here to truly challenge the rotting bedrock of American institutions, or notions of true justice – and a reluctance to truly stick the knife in at times is disappointing, falling slightly short on being a film truly worthy of the moment. But for all the things I maybe wish it were, it still manages to achieve something special in the dissonance (and I needed a rewatch to realise it).

An oppressive government tries to tie eight people to a movement so they could bury it, before revealing the movement is to be bigger than any of them – that’s a sentiment right on time. And as a historical throwback with frustrating, painfully relevant parallels, an excuse for fine actors to bounce off each other, and an entertaining, slightly tame, but ultimately loving paean to protest, The Trial of the Chicago 7 acquits itself finely.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix now.

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