The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie review: Starry courtroom drama amounts to little more than Sorkin-standard speechifying
What ought to have been a captivating clash of wits and ideologies amounts to little more than standard speechifying.
A few weeks before the US elections, Aaron Sorkin takes us back in time for a starry historical drama that mirrors our political present. The Trial of the Chicago 7 draws its story from an episode of the great farce that is American history.
What was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration against Vietnam War on the side-lines of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago grew into an inevitable riot as police confronted them with tear gas and rifles. To make an example out of the burgeoning anti-war movement, the incoming Richard Nixon administration decided to charge seven protestors with conspiracy to incite a riot. The film is a reenactment of the absurd trial that followed.
Sorkin never strays from his established style guide: every dialogue becomes a fisticuffs of contrasting ideas, the rhetoric sets the pace, the opposing personalities shape the narrative rhythm, and the wit galvanises the action. Though these characters engaged in these verbal fisticuffs more than 50 years ago, they come into being through his words alone. But he rewrites the story with the thesis built around his worldview and the conclusion already predetermined. He leaves no room to investigate for further insight. The politics of these counter-culture figures are filtered through his own centrist lens. They become nothing more than mouthpieces for preaching his liberal stance. In fact, when I saw Allen Ginsberg join the protests chanting “Om” as a supposed “war chant,” I half-expected Sorkin would include a nostalgic montage featuring celebrity witnesses from the trial, like Timothy Leary, Judy Collins, and Norman Mailer, sounding zingers like “Left-wingers are incapable of conspiracy because they’re all egomaniacs.”
The trial in itself is an interesting one. Although all seven defendants had the same goal (to end the US military intervention in Vietnam), it is important to note that not all of them knew each other before the trial. They belonged to different factions, which positioned themselves on different ends of the liberal spectrum. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were like a politically conscious Cheech & Chong, pot-and-peace-loving radicals of the Yippie movement hoping to start a cultural revolution. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) were idealistic students who believed they could carry out institutional reform from within. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was a middle-aged family man, a literal Boy Scout and a conscientious objector. John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) were not exactly notable counterculture figures, and seemed to have been picked more out of chance. As Weiner remarks in the movie: “This is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honour just to be nominated.”
Sorkin illustrates this heterogeneity within the group with the constant infighting between Hoffman and Hayden. They differ on matters related to protest styles, amount of media coverage, and the degree of commitment to the cause. Hayden believes they will be given a fair trial with due process. Only, it soon becomes clear the American justice system works differently in practice than in theory. Hoffman is quick to realise this is a “political trial.”
Acidic retorts and courtroom shenanigans aside, it is when Hoffman is asked to testify that Cohen’s performance reaches peak poignancy. There is a palpable exhaustion in his face, as if he is trying to summon hope that seems lost forever. It is that tragic expression of “nothing I say really matters.” Mark Rylance, who plays their attorney William Kunstler, is another obvious standout. Realising the outcome of the trial has been decided before it began, he slowly exposes it for the farce it is.
Frank Langella puts on the robes of the dishonourable Judge Julius Hoffman, the referee who has decided which team will win before the game has begun. Sorkin does not quite give us a horns-tail-trident treatment of an unabashed bigot, but a racist grandpa who comically mumbles and mixes up the names of defendants, reducing this Threat Level 4 to democracy to a Level 1. But it is Sorkin’s near hagiographic treatment of prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which reveals the blind spots in his centrist approach. A man, once described as a conservative attack dog, becomes a conscientious patriot, an everyman with two adorable daughters.
The Chicago Seven were originally the Chicago Eight. The case of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who happened to be in Chicago for a few hours to give a speech, and was not involved in the protests whatsoever, was declared a mistrial. But what happened before it was a disgraceful violation of basic human rights. It is agonising to watch Seale repeatedly insist upon his right to represent himself, if not have his trial delayed till the counsel of his choice is made available. After a point, Judge Hoffman orders the court officers to deal with him “as he should be dealt with”. Seale is brought back beaten, restrained and gagged in a moment, which acts as further evidence to the continuing racial dynamics in the US. On Schultz’s insistence, Judge Hoffman declares Seale’s case a mistrial, and the courtroom erupts in applause for the white attorneys. Sorkin resorts to the old Hollywood trope of giving white audiences white heroes, both conservative and liberal, to identify with.
One of the more truthful but still Sorkin-esque moments comes when the free-on-bail Hayden meets the imprisoned Seale to inform him of fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton’s death at the hands of the police. Seale informs Hayden he does not want to be bracketed with the other seven because the motive and urgency of his revolution is far different from theirs: “Your life, it’s a fuck you to your father, right? And you can see how that’s different from a rope on a tree?”
The best courtroom dramas in their skeletal frameworks function as plays. They are law as theatre. Consider Witness for the Prosecution, Judgment at Nuremberg, or Anatomy of a Murder. The lawyers are like actors and writers in this high-wire live performance, the jury gets to be the audience and participants in the story unfolding, and the judge is like the director piloting the whole thing. They are most riveting when a crafty lawyer tries to trap a witness in their own lies or weaken their credibility. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, as the judge has already made his decision long before the final verdict comes in, the courtroom mechanics struggle to hold our attention the same way.
Alan Baumgarten’s tight editing gives the film a suspenseful tempo outside of the courtroom drama, which is interspersed with flashbacks of the protests, and how the trajectories of these seven defendants meet. The drama in the courtroom and the streets of Chicago, the action in the archival clips and the scenes from the ground, the past and the present, all flow into one another, thanks to some sharp cuts.
In an interview, Sorkin spoke of how he did not change the script to mirror the world today, but the world changed to mirror the script. Though the movie may have been in the works for 14 years, it sure echoes what happened in America earlier this year: Peaceful protests calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality were broken up by police who responded with pepper sprays, rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas. It echoes what happened in India earlier this year: The Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in New Delhi turned violent in another case of disproportionate use of force, following which the police charged 15 people in a conspiracy to “engineer a riot” and “ensure communal skirmish.”
Holding up a mirror to the past, Sorkin’s film sees the world for what it is today: one unwilling to learn from the mistakes of history and thus doomed to repeat them. But it’s not the litmus test we ordered on a regressing society that has stalled, nay nullified, five decades of democratic progress. What ought to have been a captivating clash of wits and ideologies amounts to little more than standard speechifying. In a year of large-scale social discontent and civil unrest, you would expect a harder hitting indictment of the powers that be. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is neither good nor bad, it falls into that third category which can only be described as “meh.” To all the Sorkin fans and apologists, sorry if you can’t handle the truth.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.
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