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Film

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Is A Sanitized History Lesson

I must confess upfront that I am both a lover of Aaron Sorkin and of courtroom dramas. Meaning that The Trail of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Sorkin, felt like it was made with me in mind. That the result is a mixed bag is slightly disappointing.

Chicago 7 allows Sorkin to indulge in his best and worst qualities. Based on the infamous 1969 trial the movie effortlessly juggles a large cast of characters while making sure we never get lost in the tangled narrative vines. It only starts to collapse towards the end when the movie attempts to tell us what happened. Almost as if it had realized it had forgotten to do so earlier.

The movie isn’t timely, though the temptation to call it such, looms large. But to do so would require me to ignore not just the 70s, but the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and the 10s. It recalls the words of James Joyce, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

In 1968, there was a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It started out as a protest but soon became a riot when, as usual, the Chicago Police Department decided to make their presence known. The protesters were there to protest both the Vietnam War and the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, a nominee whose biggest qualification was that he wasn’t offensive.

If all of this sounds familiar, don’t worry. This is just another case of history rhyming with the present. It happens way more than I find comfortable.

Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) tasked a Chicago District Attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt) to indict and convict a group of organizers on charges of conspiracy to incite a riot. The problem is that the organizers, while known to each other, were all in Chicago with their own separate groups and can barely agree on what they are angry about much less conspire.

One of the things I adored about Chicago 7 is how Sorkin shows the disparities between the different activists. Sorkin shows the division between activist groups in both personalities, aesthetics, and basic strategies. They may all want to end the war but they can’t seem to agree on how to end the war.

Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are two counter-culture stoners who can’t help but crack wise as they flip the establishment the bird. The two have a dark sense of humor that stems from the dark times they are living through. The whole system is both offensive and a farce so why should they treat it with respect or dignity if the system itself can’t be bothered to.

They are in stark contrast to Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the preppies. Where Abbie and Jerry are hippies with a sardonically morbid wit, Tom and Rennie are earnest and serious yet respectful. Tom and Rennie are the ones who collect signatures for a petition while Abbie and Jerry are the ones who show up in court wearing judge robes with police officer uniforms underneath.

Chicago 7 is at its best when its characters are just talking, talking, talking, gloriously talking. Sorkin’s dialogue sings because his characters have a tendency to fall into conversations that have nothing to do with anything else. Their attitude and psyche’s display themselves in their very cadence and word choices; as does Sorkin himself.

Sorkin, thankfully, has a sense of humor, another writer would have been terribly dry and lacked any of the fun and snappy back and forth. Scenes exist for no reason but to show us these characters interacting with each other.

Abbie and Jerry are walking into court surrounded by a crowd of supporters and protesters and someone throws an egg. Jerry catches it. Abbie congratulates him and asks how he caught it. “Experience.”

Strong and Cohen play off each other beautifully. Cohen’s fast-talking urbane Abbie contrasts perfectly with the perpetually confused earnest Jerry. Though they supply most of the humor, as Chicago 7 unravels, we begin to see how keenly observant and methodical the two really are. “It’s a revolution, Tom. We may have to hurt somebody’s feelings.”

The activists are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). Two men who refuse to believe the political trial they are participating in is actually a political trial. That is until they meet the judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

For its first half, Chicago 7 is riveting, not just because of Sorkin’s tight script and easy-going directorial style, but because of the clash of two groups of people. The group of people who have long realized the system is corrupt and those who will learn a harsh civics lesson. Judge Hoffman is not only bigoted but he is so rankly dismissive of both the law and procedure, he is a horrifying figure.

Langella’s soothing voice glosses over the man’s hollow moral framework. The lone black man on trial Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is constantly derided by the judge and at one point literally bound and gagged. In one tense exchange, Abdul-Mateen II utters the line of the movie, “Couldn’t care less what you’re tired of.”

One of the failings of Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s sidelining of Bobby Seale. So, much of his story happens off-screen, while the others are given the dignity of flashbacks and confessions. True, Bobby wasn’t there, and of the defendants, he is the only one being held in prison due to an out of state murder charge. (A charge that he would be cleared of.)

Sorkin uses Seale to show the Grand Canyon-sized rift between what the others are fighting for and what Bobby is fighting for. Tom, Rennie, Abbie, Jerry, and David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch) are all white and are fighting to end a war they believe to be unjust. Seale is fighting for his very existence, which Sorkin demonstrates with a few key scenes.

The problem is these scenes are just the scratch of the surface. Not to mention when they are in court the others don’t seem to talk that much about Bobby or seem to think about him all that much. It feels like a missed opportunity for Sorkin not to find a way to better incorporate, not just the lone Black voice, into the conversation, but easily the most relevant and truly authoritarian challenging voice amongst them.

It doesn’t help that Abdu-Mateen II is captivating and nails every syllable of Sorkin’s dialogue. The scene leading up to his being gagged is more intense than the footage of the riots themselves, and Abdul-Mateen II does it all with his eyes. The man is a revelation that is all but brushed aside.

The Abdul-Mateen II problem bleeds into the other problem known as the Sorkin paradox. Sorkin is a clever and talented writer who sometimes gets lost trying to show us just how smart and talented he is. For as much as I enjoyed the back and forth, the little zingers. and am intensely in tune with the sense of humor of Chicago 7 I found myself wishing I had more times with the characters debating each other rather than sitting around.

Lynch’s David is a conscientious objector, who while being a boy scout troop leader, also sat out World War II. Rylance’s Kunstler laughs, “Even I want to punch you in the face.” David nods. “I’d love to talk about it.” A man so against violence, that when the corruption in his own court gets to be so much he punches a bailiff in an emotional outburst. He is immediately distraught and apologizes as he is taken away.

There is such a broad disparity of views amongst the activists that I find myself wanting to hear them argue their points more than what inevitably evolves into a verbal dick measuring contest. Part of it might be that the cast is so jam-packed with great character actors it feels as if the movie should be three hours long so everyone gets a scene. I haven’t mentioned Rylance, who is, per usual, perfect and captivating without really doing anything.

All of this could have been forgiven though. After all, Sorkin is learning how to use editing and blend it with his rat-a-tat dialogue with each passing movie. There’s a montage of witnesses who reveal themselves to be undercover cops who were pretending to be protesters. Afterward, one of the activists turns to his friend. “Do you think it’s possible that there were seven demonstrators in Chicago last summer leading 100,00 undercover cops in protest?”

The structure of Chicago 7 ultimately dooms it. A tape is found at the eleventh hour that supposedly holds damning evidence. In typical Sorkin fashion, the moment is built up to be this great dramatic incident and it turns out to hinge on little more than someone misspeaking. Not only that but Sorkin waits until halfway through the third act to show us what really happened. 

But the way it unfolds makes no sense. After all, wouldn’t they have had to discuss what happened before the trial started? The whole thing is treated as a great big reveal but it misses the landing because we’re left wondering how no one didn’t already know this.

Phedon Papamichael’s camera largely hovers in the background. The frames perfectly proportioned to capture the ungainly cast. It records, but Sorkin, rarely allows Papamichael to do anything more. Preferring to keep the camera grounded thus keeping the mood of the film muted as well.

To add further salt into the wound Sorkin, a man whose strident optimism is a trait that I wholeheartedly admire him for, can’t help but jam it in where it doesn’t belong. In a moment in which the justice system is revealed to be so rotted and dysfunctional, Sorkin frames the scene and the music as an uplifting last hurrah, because his characters are “taking a stand”. 

Chicago 7 is not tone deaf but it doesn’t have pitch-perfect hearing either. At times it hits the nail directly on the head and in those moments Chicago 7 soars. But at others, especially towards the end, it becomes embroiled in its own desire to believe in a system that has long proven to be poisoned from the inside out. It cares more about celebrating an ineffectual gesture of protest than actual justice.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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Author

  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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