“While the movie does its best to create a reenactment with its gaze turned firmly towards the present, it can’t really figure out how to connect its ideas when it matters the most.”
by Ken Bakely
Discussions about factual accuracy in historical films and the effects of an artist’s own philosophical imprint seem to collide in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Much has been made of how his telling of the trial in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention glosses over a good deal, and much has been made of how Sorkin’s sweeping moralizations might or might not play a part in how he approaches the material. But at the cross-section of these two arguments is the larger takeaway of the film, which is how Sorkin has made a film that clearly attempts to address current discourse more than recreate an episode from the past. I say this not as an inherent criticism, but as a suggestion of why the movie is shaped the way it is, with conversations framed as binary arguments over the nature of political process, and an accompanying desire to wrap as much as possible into neat packages that can button up scenes. It’s a professionally made, passionately envisioned, and commendably performed film, but it feels strangely lacking when it tries to make any larger conclusions about what this entire exercise amounts teaches, conveys, or believes.
The movie devotes the majority of its time to dramatizing the trial in the courtroom, where Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) – an aging judge who is explicitly biased towards the prosecution, led by Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Foran (J. C. McKenzie) – presides over the potential fates of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), who are primarily represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). An eighth defendant – Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the chairman of the Black Panther Party – is initially included alongside them, despite his counsel not being available. The film goes some way to depict the degree to which Seale was mistreated even more brutally than the Seven. Though there was no real case against any of them, Seale’s case was thinnest; though he was not involved with planning the protests at the DNC at all. But it took Julius Hoffman ordering him bound and gagged in the courtroom (so Seale could not object to not having an attorney) for days on end before he was severed from the case.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 certainly underlines the injustices performed against Seale in particular – and it should – but it’s also clear that there was never any intention on the part of the state to perform anything resembling justice to begin with. The riots in Chicago were the result of a police force primed to exercise violence at any possible opportunity, and they did so with the knowledge that this was how this was supposed to go, as ordered by their superiors. Though Sorkin has a certain proclivity to be caught up in the speechification of the worlds he creates, which often has the tendency – here and elsewhere – to abstract key viewpoints, it is important to note that the baseline reality here is at least attended to. Quite simply, the film is at its best when it fills in the details, building its characters and its history through both large and small moments. Sterling performances from Strong and Baron Cohen highlight Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s resigned and sardonic humor in relation to the trial, and Sorkin is admirably un-showy when depicting the realities of the violence that went down during the convention: cops cover their badges and the streets practically run scarlet with the blood of protestors battered by clubs, and he doesn’t shy away from the situation. Ironically, his weaknesses in approaching this material come with what is conventionally thought of as his strength: it’s the quirky, talky rhythm of the courtroom banter, and warmed-over arguments between characters in discussion that lulls the movie into an uncomfortably droll rhythm.
The issue that this creates is relatively apparent early on. A fictional work based on real events must necessarily try to find interest in telling a narrative where the ending is already known, but here, even though Sorkin takes considerable liberty in manufacturing his vision of this story, his most consequential choices and flourishes are often confounding. The heavy stylization of the courtroom proceedings moves the film’s focus away from the substance of the discussion and the facts, and gives it an opportunity to pull its punches at key moments. Sorkin’s desire to address us in the present, using the past leads to an ending that is both invented and befuddling, with it going against the unflinching and thoughtful accomplishments which came before, and substituting that approach for an empty, hollow concoction of his philosophy that’s essentially the equivalent of dramatic junk food: pleasing in the moment, but entirely non-nutritious. The Trial of the Chicago 7 might be propelled by Sorkin’s fiery dialogue, but this approach gets in the way of communicating much of a real message. Fine artistic achievements and relevant observations are belied by messy follow-ups; it trades being intuitive for being obvious with frustrating regularity. While the movie does its best to create a reenactment with its gaze turned firmly towards the present, it can’t really figure out how to connect its ideas when it matters the most.