We are currently trapped in a politically fraught moment in time. Hyper-partisanship has led to a series of political stalemates, and Americans’ faith in government institutions has decayed. When people don’t feel that their voices are being heard by those in power, they take to the streets and demand change. The political turmoil playing out over the course of 2020 has caused many to reflect that the civil unrest resembles another period in American history – the chaotic summer of 1968. A raft of political assassinations and protests about race and the ongoing war in Vietnam culminated in a moment of shocking violence that aired on primetime television with the riots during Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the aftermath of the riots and the eventual election of Richard Nixon to the presidency, a number of left wing activists were put on trial for a litany of accusations, including inciting a riot, in Chicago. Now the political trial that took place in the Windy City is the subject of the new film from writer-director Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
After an opening montage that uses archival footage that establishes Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, as well as the increasing draft quotas, alongside images of the growing civil unrest as leaders are assassinated, Sorkin starts the film in the office of Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell (John Dorman). The new AG is meeting with the young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to lay out the Department of Justice’s new mission – prosecute the activists who instigated the riots in Chicago. Schultz tells his new boss that the DoJ had reviewed the case and declined to press charges. Mitchell makes it pretty clear: Nixon is in the White House and Mitchell will carry out whatever his president asks of him. (Of course, this will come back to bite Mitchell as he’s was convicted of numerous crimes for his role in the Watergate scandal; something that is not addressed in the film.)
Eight defendants – we’ll get further into the numerical discrepancy of the film’s title a little later – are indicted for their role in the unrest that occurred in Chicago at the DNC. At the defendants’ table you will find a cross section of the various competing factions of ‘60s liberalism in America. The radical hippies are represented by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). The anti-war youth infused with a kind of Kennedy-inspired idealism are embodied by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp). David Dellinger (John Carol Lynch) is the idealist who tries to meld the two factions that are both aligned and opposing. Then there’s the unfortunate duo of John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), who are merely caught up in these historic proceeding, their reflection upon their situation gives the film that mostly ignores their story a bit of metatextual humor. The seven defendants are represented by the idealistic duo of William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
At the end of the defendants’ table sits Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Seale’s attorney is unable to make it due to a health issue and the cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) refuses to allow Seale to defend himself. Throughout the trial, it’s clear that Judge Hoffman isn’t particularly interested in providing equal protection under the law as much as simply paying that foundational ideal a bit of lip service. Seale’s role in this political theater was already disgusting, but the violation of his rights by the sitting judge in this case is enough to stoke the flames of outrage anew.
At his best, Sorkin uses his characters to passionately articulate American ideals and interrogate where we fail to live up to them. At his worst, Sorkin uses his characters to deliver condescending monologues about outdated modes of political idealism that don’t reflect political reality. Anyone familiar with the work of Aaron Sorkin could see how The Trial of the Chicago 7 with its roster of ideological subjects could play into the writer-director’s worst tendencies. Safe to say, The Trial of the Chicago 7 mostly plays to Sorkin’s strengths as writer, and sees him making great leaps forward as director following his debut a few years ago with Molly’s Game.
One thing that’s key about The Trial of the Chicago 7 in straying away from Sorkin’s more grating tics is there is no obvious character that serves as the unvarnished voice of its writer-director. It’s obvious on the film’s main conflict – the Department of Justice vs. the Chicago 7 – which side its creator stands. It’s the factional in-fighting among the defendants that Sorkin really delivers some strong work, examining the tensions within coalitions that often get glossed over with time. While so much of the film features political disagreements between like-minded individuals, it’s an instance where you can’t tell where Sorkin personally stands and his ability to keep himself removed from these character prioritizes the drama of the story over its creator’s preferred messaging.
As good as Sorkin’s script is, he’s greatly aided by having an incredible cast deliver his lines. As the infamous Abbie Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen captures the man’s chaotic energy even if his vocal inflection sounds eerily similar to Cohen’s character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello from his recent show Who Is America?. Jeremy Strong brings a perma-stoned aura to his version of Jerry Rubin, an ideological stalwart undermined by his own chemical indulgence. The biggest surprise in the all-star cast is the performance by Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden straightforward without a bizarre accent or odd mannerisms. It is Redmayne’s most subtle performance in years and it’s also his best in years. The anchor for the film comes in the dueling performances by Mark Rylance and Frank Langella. In these two performances Sorkin boils down the central ideological battle unfolding in the courtroom, but also the one that played out in the streets of Chicago in ’68 and are still playing out today.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 does have its moments where Sorkin does give into some of his weak spots. There are basically no female characters of note with the exception of Caitlin Fitzgerald as an undercover Chicago cop. Sorkin gets a bit of leeway on this as the true story was male dominated. That also means that there’s no scene where a verbose man talks down to a woman – progress! The other thing Sorkin does in the film that left me a tad unsettled was the way in which he attempts to ascribe a tinge of uneasiness to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz about the case he’s prosecuting. Information online about the prosecutor is scarce so it’s hard to gauge how accurate this is, but it does undermine the film’s central conflict about how the law is applied and to whom.
All in all, Aaron Sorkin has delivered a thoughtful, entertaining, and briskly paced political drama with The Trial of the Chicago 7. More often than not, the writer-director plays to his strengths and reminds you just how good an Aaron Sorkin script can be when he shies away from his more overstated instincts. The Trial of the Chicago 7 taps into American ideals examines how those rights are unevenly distributed. Aaron Sorkin is a great writer who is becoming a very good director. In this film, Sorkin carefully crafted a film about the past that reflects the present without straining the audience to draw the obvious connection.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
A thoughtful, timely, and entertaining historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays to writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s strengths with an all-star cast bringing Sorkin’s crackling dialogue to life.