Aaron Sorkin’s latest is an impeccably acted but disappointingly liberal legal drama that plays like a blockbuster.
No one writes like Aaron Sorkin. Say what you will about his style — overblown, masturbatory, whatever — it takes a particular skill to write so recognisably that you can be parodied on late-night television. For The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin has returned to his preferred stage: the corruption and fury of the courtroom. His monologue-heavy style sings in this setting, and the film plays like a blockbuster — it’s bombastic and earnest, enough of a crowd-pleaser to produce applause. There's something undeniable about a legal drama that leaves you feeling like you've just won a fight.
Sorkin delivers the context for this film in a slick, Spike Lee-esque montage, even featuring the same clip of Martin Luther King Jr used by Lee in Da 5 Bloods — a quick stoking of our righteous anger before we get down to the brass tacks of the case. In the summer of 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and only a few months after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. 10,000 anti-war demonstrators descended on the city, holding a free music festival and protesting for peace. On 28 August 1968, there was a police riot, the culmination of days of tension between the protesters and the police. The police sprayed so much tear gas it reached inside the hotel where the convention was being held and bothered the former vice president while he was taking a shower.
This film follows the eight (eventually seven) protesters who were tried for conspiring to cross state lines in order to incite this riot: Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party; Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), chairman of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee; anti-war activists John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins); and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). This huge ensemble cast is rounded out by Mark Rylance as the Seven's lawyer, Frank Langella as Judge Hoffman, and Michael Keaton as former attorney general Ramsey Clark.
Aside from Eddie Redmayne — who is, for my money, one of the worst actors ever to win an Academy Award — this is an all-star cast at the height of their powers. It's tough to pick a standout — Rylance is as natural and honest as always; Strong and Cohen are stoned and sublime, Strong playing Jerry with an innocent underside and Cohen giving Abbie an edge of deep intelligence; Michael Keaton's single raised eyebrow remains one of the more powerful weapons in a director's arsenal.
Archive footage is beautifully interwoven with scenes shot for the film — there's an immediacy here, particularly during the flashbacks to the protests. Sorkin doesn't shy away from brutality, and there are a few truly indelible images — cops pulling off their badges and name-tags, Seale bound and gagged, a girl being assaulted. These scenes are even more effective in the wake of this summer's protests against police violence in the US. In spite of the victorious tone of the ending, you will leave with an awareness of how little has changed in the 52 years since the Chicago riot.
Sorkin is a liberal's liberal — those familiar with The West Wing will be unsurprised by his apparent unwillingness to examine America's entrenched corruption and biases. He places blame for the state of the case entirely on the individuals involved — particularly Judge Hoffman, partly attorney general John Mitchell and his underlings, and partly Richard Nixon. An unfortunate side-effect either of the casting or of Sorkin's own feelings is that Abbie — the only consistent revolutionary amongst the group other than Bobby Seale — is relegated to a comedic role for much of the film, while Tom Hayden is placed front and centre as our buttoned-up liberal democratic protagonist.
Though Abbie ends up taking the stand over Hayden, Sorkin has him tell the courtroom: "I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by terrible people." Sorkin can't escape his own tendency for bipartisanship, for politeness and respect in the face of the American justice system. Even prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given his hero moment as he stands with the defendants for the names of those fallen in Vietnam over the course of the trial.
Still, this ability Sorkin has to humanise every character, to give them flaws and eccentricities and little moments of heroism is, in many ways, what makes him such a special writer. None of these men are uncomplicatedly good or evil — each is a product of their circumstances, and each feels nuanced and real, which is a tricky balance to strike in a film with this many characters. It speaks to the skill of the cast, and even of the costume designers, but especially to Sorkin's skill as a writer.
There's a willingness to criticise Hayden's extreme respect for authority — Abbie makes fun of him for getting a haircut before the trial, and he repeatedly comes across as over-educated and ineffective. While the use of a Black maid to scold Hayden for his reaction to the horrific treatment of Bobby Seale is more than a little clumsy, when Seale himself is able to speak he criticises Hayden cleanly and perfectly. Through Seale, Sorkin hints at the motivations of our White revolutionaries — "it's a fuck-you to your father, right?" — and contrasts this with the fight for survival at the centre of Black activism.
The film suffers from the loss of Seale — he's by far the most interesting of the eight men originally on trial, but when his case is separated by Judge Hoffman from the conspiracy charge, he is also separated from the film. In reality, he was only present for 21 days of the six-month trial, so perhaps this is something of a compromise — a heavier lean on his perspective than actually occurred at the time — but it left me wanting more. I hope someday his story is given the space it deserves. Sorkin is a much better writer than director — he gives far too much space to his own writing, and frequently uses editing to put an exclamation point on an already overwrought speech. I wonder just how good this film could've been with a director willing to push against his tendencies the way David Fincher did on The Social Network. This film's proximity to greatness makes the flaws more apparent than they would be if it was less well-made, but to bemoan what could have been in alternate circumstances is to refuse to engage with the work that exists — and this is a film that deserves our engagement.
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