Note: The writer of this review watched The Trial Of The Chicago 7 from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
For all his interest in mashing the hot buttons of contemporary political discourse, Aaron Sorkin has never exactly had his finger on the pulse of the here and now. He’s always been more of a hindsight sermonizer, prone to after-the-fact soapboxing—a habit that can, at best, result in insightful postmortems of cultural sea change (like his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network) and at worst manifest as self-righteous Monday morning quarterbacking (like all three seasons of his HBO series The Newsroom). History does, however, tend to repeat itself, and Sorkin has lucked, for that reason, into a drama of at least superficial topicality: Though set on the chaotic precipice of the late 1960s, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 offers a disturbingly familiar vision of an America where police come down hard on peaceful demonstrators, where the federal government conducts witch hunts for the “radical left,” and where Black citizens are murdered with impunity. Of course, all of that’s been true and “timely” for the half-century that separates the film’s real-life events from those of current headlines. And with Sorkin at the helm, it takes the evergreen shape of crowd-pleasing political theatre, the kind on which the West Wing creator has built a career.
Sorkin has a knack for courtroom theatrics, going back to his first screenwriting gig, A Few Good Men. Here he’s dramatized a true story of legal railroading: the proceedings that followed 1968’s Democratic National Convention, when thousands of protesters flooded Chicago and were greeted with the very kind of blunt-force police brutality that’s currently filling up social media feeds and cable-news programs. Months after the teargas cleared, the justice department of the newly elected President Nixon pressed charges of conspiracy and inciting riots against several prominent anti-war activists.
These defendants, the eponymous seven, were a motley ensemble of firebrands, all arrested during the demonstrations and played in Sorkin’s film by movie stars, Oscar winners, and dead-ringer character actors. There was Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the sardonic countercultural icons at the head of the Youth International Party, a.k.a. the “Yippies.” There was Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), who the film presents as the less theatrical yin to Hoffman’s yang, and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), both of Students For A Democratic Society. And rounding out the Seven were the buttoned-up and staunchly nonviolent David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), of The National Mobilization Committee To End The War In Vietnam. These accused were tried alongside Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was in Chicago during the convention for all of a few hours, and denied the right to represent himself in court in the absence of his lawyer.
The trial was, to be put it mildly, farcical—a sham presided over by a judge, Julius Hoffman (played here by Frank Langella), who made up his mind about the guilt of the defendants long before they set foot in his courtroom. The Trial Of The Chicago 7, which Sorkin directed as well as wrote (it’s his second feature, following the overlong Molly’s Game), cuts between this kangaroo court and the chaos surrounding the convention. It’s a flashback structure reminiscent of the one the filmmaker adopted in The Social Network but also of an earlier film on this subject, Brett Morgen’s exhilarating agitprop documentary Chicago 10, which tackled the same events with a mixture of archival footage set to modern rock and animated reenactments adapted from the court transcripts. Sorkin even opens his film with the exact same footage of Lyndon B. Johnson announcing another wave of deployments to Vietnam. He also filches Morgen’s rat-a-tat cutaways to Hoffman performing for college kids on the weekend, tossing insults and quips like the Lenny Bruce of progressive politics.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 wants to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its setting—the take-to-the-streets idealism of the ’60s—but its snappy montage-glimpses of demonstrations verge on costume-party kitsch. The movie is at its best and most persuasive in the courtroom, when Sorkin can draw on the clashes of ideology and personality. A few of the more highly publicized testimonies have been curiously excised. (Where, for one example, is Allen Ginsberg’s humming cameo on the stand?) But Sorkin preserves from the public record the comic highlights and most outrageous lapses in judicial objectivity: the judge bungling names and issuing vindictive contempt charges at the drop of a hat; Hoffman and Rubin playing the room like a comedy club, at one point donning robes; and the gut-wrenchingly racist spectacle of Seale bound and gagged for his demand that he be allowed to speak on his own behalf. The trial remains one of the most notorious in American history, and Sorkin remains faithful to its infuriating miscarriages of justice—to the way it seemed to illustrate, on a giant public stage, the rigged game our legal system can become.
But this is no procedural. It’s a Hollywoodized recounting, like a courtroom sketch rendered by a carnival caricature artist. Sorkin can’t resist manufacturing little arcs and dramatic payoffs, even when they contradict what we know about these men. That means we get the gentle Dellenger, who swore off all violence in college, slugging a bailiff when the injustice of the trial finally goes too far for him—an outburst that’s answered with a shameless shot of his adolescent son watching, wide-eyed and quiver-lipped, from the gallery. Rubin, in this version of events, is something close to comic relief, his shtick conforming to flower-power cliché and his feelings “hilariously” wounded by the discovery that his Chicago meet-cute was with an undercover agent. (Leave it to Sorkin to invent whole-clothe a backstabbing seductress.) And the film insists on giving one of the prosecutors a nagging conscience: While the real Richard Schultz has been described as a “pit bull” for his attack-dog reputation, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays him as a conflicted, principled patriot, reluctant to even take the case; it betrays Sorkin’s politics as much more centrist than his subjects’.
At least the performances are top notch, expertly handling Sorkin’s trademark quip and sanctimony. They help rescue The Trial Of The Chicago 7 from its sketch-comedy leanings and biopic simplifications. If you’re going to idealize radical, divisive defense attorney William Kunstler as a paragon of legal integrity, who better to stick in the role than soft-spoken nobility incarnate Mark Rylance? The real stroke of casting genius, though, is Baron Cohen as Hoffman, activism’s prankster rock star. The accent isn’t perfect, but the comedy chameleon pinpoints Hoffman’s rebel spirit, that alchemy of irreverence and moral conviction that defined his appeal. The turn—less impression than conjuring act—pumps some soul into the movie’s most fruitful dramatic embellishment: its depiction of Hoffman and Hayden as adversarial allies, skirmishing for the direction of the movement. It’s the one bit of poetic license that feels truly relevant to the challenges facing the American left, then and now.
For a time, Steven Spielberg was attached to direct The Trial Of The Chicago 7, and his absence is felt in the televisual staging: For all the sentimental uplift of this film’s closing minutes, Sorkin lacks the master’s skill—flaunted in Lincoln and The Post—at enlivening gabby civics lessons. The film could have used some of Spielberg’s craft and twinkly open-hearted conviction... or, perhaps conversely, more of Hoffman’s radical, down-with-The-Man sensibility. Ultimately, Sorkin seems less interested in the actual politics of any of his seven than in the way their flipped bird to the establishment facilitates his own taste for zingers, clever comebacks, and grandstanding. Parallels to the present aside, Trial Of The Chicago 7 is ultimately more timeless than timely in its flaws and conventions. Which is to say that some things sadly never go out of fashion, like perversions of justice and eleventh hour surprise witnesses in legal dramas.