It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least among upper-tier screenwriters), that if your screenplay ages out of the particular political moment it’s written in, one should put it in the bottom of their desk drawer and wait for another administration to take power in order to give it relevance. Such is the ethos behind Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which began its life as a screenplay penned by Sorkin for Steven Spielberg during the height of Bush-era political malpractice, whose parallels were to the present day were right on the money and easy to make. However, the world had other plans — the 2007 writers strike and a lack of funding caused Spielberg to leave the project, and soon enough, that administration was cast out to sea and replaced with a bunch of centrist idealists who believed in the kind of respectability politics that Sorkin’s characters in The West Wing espoused and the comfort that they gave — and now, the moment feels superficially right enough for such a project to comfortably find an audience. It’s an odd, odd film, all things considered, and though it is incredibly watchable — it goes down about as easy as hot chocolate on a cold day — it’s not particularly insightful, and Sorkin’s still not a strong enough filmmaker to totally land his punches in the way he’d like.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 concerns — you guessed it — the federal trial of eight (though soon to be seven) anti-war activists in the aftermath of the Chicago Riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, indicted for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention to start a riot. They were Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), leader of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), pranksters and leaders of the Yippies, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of the Black Panthers, who was grouped with the other defendants even though he’d never met any of them. The prosecution, led by US Attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is essentially doing the dirty work for Nixon’s Attorney General, who has a vendetta against his predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) for violating norms (oh, you sweet, sweet, summer child), and the defense, led by Civil Rights attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), has a nearly impossible task. They’ll have to manage the cranky, aging Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), and prevent the more anarchically-inclined amongst the defendants from getting them all sent to prison on contempt charges. Expect to hear that word a lot.
I’ll go ahead and say flat-out that I don’t know as much as I should about this particular era in American Leftist history, having been well-and-frustrated with nostalgic focus on boomer triumphs and losses in recent years enough, but I do know enough to distrust Sorkin’s take on the matter. It often comes close to being bad history, and it’s weird what lines of real dialogue from the trial he preserves, given that they’re often not the ones you’d find cited. But as entertainment, it’s alright, though Sorkin’s boner for compromise this time exists within leftism itself rather than it being intra-party. Sorkin’s greatest works have often been centered around trials, and the rhetorical thrills remain as compelling as ever. There’s even a fun attempt to reverse the Perry Mason-esque denouncement in A Few Good Men with Redmayne sitting on the (imagined) stand being interrogated by Rylance in a strategy session following a late-breaking admission of evidence, and, for the most part, it’s solid stuff.
His casting is smart, and of particular note is Baron Cohen, who I had assumed would be the worst part of this enterprise and is actually quite nice in the role. He doesn’t over-exaggerate Hoffman in his characterization, and though Sorkin’s portrayal of said prankster leaves a lot to be desired in its interiority (who would have thought that Abbie Hoffman wasn’t just fucking Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, huh?), Cohen is able to separate the man from his actions and grok at the man’s soulfulness and sadness. It’s fantastic to watch Redmayne do something other than his Fantastic Beastsschtick, and Rylance is sturdy and folksy in the best ways, especially when he’s feeding off Langella’s authoritarian energies.
It’s just that whenever Sorkin leaves the courtroom or a strategy session, the film collapses in on itself. Notably, these are all moments that would have required the touch of an experienced-and-established filmmaker like the many masters that Sorkin has worked with in the past (even Rob Reiner could have directed this into a much more compelling state), who could conceptualize these moments even farther beyond how they appear on the page. An early Spike Lee-esque montage meant to establish and remind viewers of the times as they were then while having none of the flow or free-associative bliss of something like Da 5 Bloods, and it comes across as strangely stodgy, and his action, in the few scenes that require flashbacks to the day of, is inert and odd and forces out some of his more bizarre qualities.
There are moments when the filmmaker’s sloppiness dilute and mute the power of his own writing, like at the end of the “trial” section of the film, where Sorkin fades to black in a truly weird way, or the film’s very end, which I hope someone makes a YouTube cut of and sets it to sounds of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.” I wish I could have seen what someone like Spielberg would have done with this material — it would have been a hell of a lot livelier than The Post, that’s for damn sure, and might have even starred Rylance in the same role, had it been filmed instead of West Side Story — because what’s here’s not particularly great. If you have exhausted your options for legal thrillers, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a decent alternative, but it’s Sorkin-tinted Splenda, and not a true substitute for any real political cinema. Watch Medium Cool instead.