Passionate and often powerful, Aaron Sorkin‘s The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives at an apt moment. Modern parallels are clear with racial and political protests that dominated headlines in the summer of this year and have continued in the months since. The Trial of the Chicago 7 showcases leaders of individual factions of the progressive movement in the 1960s on trial for riots that occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dissatisfied with Hubert Humphrey being chosen as the candidate, the film opens as the leaders of these student groups rally their followers to protest in Chicago. Trying the legal route with permit applications, they are rebuffed by the government and opt to nonetheless protest. Upon Richard Nixon’s election, new Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), upset that his predecessor Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) resigned later than usual, decides to reopen a case that Clark had passed on. Prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is tasked with prosecuting Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) for inciting a riot.
It is a political trial as Abbie aptly states, one waged by Nixon to quell anger over an unpopular war and to show what happens to protestors. The fact the Democrats who preceded them had refused to prosecute amid FBI and counter-intelligence conclusions that the police started the riots, only made it sweeter for this politically-motivated case. It does take Defense Attorney William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) a little while to catch on that this is not a normal criminal trial, but Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) makes it quite clear himself with a consistent refusal to even give the appearance of a fair trial. Sorkin lays out the indignant behavior of the court in the early stages of the film from refusing Bobby Seale the right to represent himself to the many rulings in favor of the prosecution that occur simply because of the Judge’s personal beliefs. It is an angry film, one that fights back against the process that tried to convict these men. The Trial of the Chicago 7 does not shy away from the government corruption, jury tampering, racism, and absurdity that occurred in this trial. It enables the audience to see the power that tries to maintain the status quo, all under the cover of justice while perpetuating injustice and a perversion of what Americans ideals are envisioned to be. Even listing the names of the Vietnam dead has become political – COVID parallels can even be felt here – with any sanctity for life or respect for troops registering as somehow liberal and anarchist.
Sorkin’s own ideology seems to struggle to come to a conclusion in The Trial of the Chicago 7. It clearly sides with the protestors and points a finger at the conservatives trying to silence them, but when it comes to the violence, Abbie and Jeremy’s behavior, and Tom’s behavior, it is very clear that it supports protesting… up to a point. Urging violence, acting immaturely, or embracing the hippie imagery are flaws that the film struggles with, something that is said here and has been vocalized in Sorkin’s work before. In The Newsroom, there is dialogue about how Abbie Hoffman and Jeremy Rubin becoming the face of the movement ruined progressivism in the United States. Tom Hayden word-for-word repeats the same here to Abbie’s face, while Abbie’s “immature” acts are shown to be actively harming his defense. It is only when Abbie buttons up, speaks maturely, and expresses admiration for Tom that he is shown much respect by Tom or even the film at-large. Until then, he is a source of amusement and depicted as brash, a stereotypical hippie with a flippant sense of humor. Tom, in contrast, is a white bread American who is well-spoken and, as Sorkin has made clear in both this film and his prior works, is a more acceptable face for the movement to the public.
One thinks of Stanley Kramer‘s obscure R.P.M., a film in which a liberal college professor (Anthony Quinn) is promoted to acting President in order to end a student protest and occupation of an academic building. Kramer, as with Sorkin, is a noted and outspoken liberal and his ideology filled his filmography in simultaneously progressive and regressive ways (i.e. The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner filtering anti-racism through interracial friendship or an old man having to accept his daughter marrying a Black man). Both the film and the character are in favor of the student’s beliefs, but not in the actions of the movement due to how it upsets the normal balance of life at the school. The Trial of the Chicago 7, as with Kramer’s film, is obsessed with decorum and doing things the right way. Disrespect for the judge is only tolerated when the judge is disrespectful. Being buttoned up with a good haircut is part-and-parcel with being a good political leader. The system is so broken that the police openly beat protestors for merely being in the way but, in the end, it is not the system that is blamed but the politicking of Nixon and Mitchell. Men like Ramsey Clark are celebrated for seeing past this, even if they too maintained the status quo when in office. As in reality, the courts will correct most of the flaws in the case and justice is upheld because these characters did not incite riots. Cultural norms are upheld, the revolution is postponed, and decorum and character reign triumphant no matter how trivial. It is a film willing to endorse the vision but not the face of the movement it depicts, leaving it wholly out-of-step and exemplifying Sorkin as one with his heart in the right place but too dated an eye to truly “get” everything the film shows.
That is a fatal flaw of Sorkin and The Trial of the Chicago 7, a struggle to embrace the radical despite depicting some of it in the first place. Even the prosecutor’s, Schultz’s, journey is shown sympathetically as a “good man” who sees the protestors as immature but clearly respects their ideology. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does well with it, but as a pseudo-Sorkin stand-in, the character hits as thuddingly on-the-nose. Fortunately, despite this flaw, the film does nonetheless rouse and incite the anger it aims for with a passionate telling of history. The cast and writing are both essential for this with Sorkin logically laying out the case and the injustice. Cross cutting between the trial and reality, one can see perjury play out in real time and it builds an anger that Sorkin harnesses to perfection. Sacha Baron Cohen is very impressive as Abbie Hoffman, while Sorkin excels in writing his odd and growing friendship with Tom Hayden. Two different men with contrasting approaches, but nonetheless united in belief and fervor. Eddie Redmayne, despite the American accent, is solid in bringing Tom’s eloquence and affability to the forefront. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who plays Fred Hampton) both have supporting roles, but nonetheless make their presence felt. Capturing the raw emotion of their figures and rightfully bringing passion to the racial prejudice towards the Black Panther Party, both capture the plight, injustice, and beliefs of the Party with great power.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not a great film, but as with Stanley Kramer’s films of yesteryear, it is one both with an arcing power that is hard to deny and that has its heart in the right place. It nicely taps into the current moment with smart commentary on corruption, albeit stopping short of truly “getting” the counterculture movement and political activism of the time. Aaron Sorkin always excels with dialogue and characters, something that The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows consistently. It, as with Kramer’s films, is a bit naive and dated with an emphasis on process and “how things are done” but this does not dull the impact of the work. It is one that leaves viewers pouring over the details, incited to rage at the actions of Judge Hoffman or Nixon, and determined to fight injustice wherever it is found. Sorkin does (quite literally) repeat himself and his ideology remains firmly stuck in the late-1990s/early-2000s, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a natural fit for him and his dialogue-heavy style with details allowed to take center stage and deliver the power needed to make a deeply felt impression.