“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) Review

Dir. Aaron Sorkin; Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance

[2 out of 4 stars]

To say that I am a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work would be an understatement. As I noted in an earlier piece, The West Wing (1999-2006) is my most rewatched movie or television show. I can recite the majority of A Few Good Men (1992) right along with the actors, including my mediocre Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise impressions. Sorkin’s scripts for The Social Network (2010) and Steve Jobs (2015) are remarkable feats of operatic writing married with directors who can execute his precise rhythms. All of these projects are marked by his particular ability to assemble both historical events and fictitious circumstances into layered morality plays, fully decked out with snappy dialogue and more than the odd soliloquy. Therefore, the promise of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), which Sorkin wrote and directed, was exciting. Here is a rich historical text right in the Sorkin politics-by-way-of-courtroom wheelhouse; it would only follow that the result would be the most Sorkinesque of Sorkin projects. In the end, The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers on that promise, both for better and for worse.

Sorkin recounts the 1968 protests in Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention, and the ensuing court case waged by the Nixon administration against a group of men charged with inciting the riots that took place in conjunction with the protests. The case hinged upon the Attorney General’s charge that the defendants, individuals from across the country who came together to stage the protests, conspired across state lines to incite violence. The eight men initially charged were Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Altogether, they represent the leadership of various groups of  college students, hippies, and every day concerned Americans who wanted to protest the handling of the Vietnam War. The charges against all of the men were considered suspect from the start, as President Johnson’s administration had previously decided not to pursue charges before Nixon won, but Seale’s inclusion was particularly suspect as he had been in Chicago on the day of the protest to deliver an unaffiliated speech so was not present at any events linked to the trial, and so he was removed from the group after a few weeks of the trial. Sorkin focuses on the trial itself, but fills in the circumstances of the protests and ensuing violence through flashbacks and conversation. It is a large ensemble covering a lot of ground, and the result is a largely successful retelling that nonetheless seems to take on more story than it can properly contain. 

I think of Sorkin predominantly as a writer. He went from playwright to screenwriter in the 1990s, and has been churning out scripts ever since. Before this film, his only other directorial credit was the uneven poker drama Molly’s Game (2017), so he is still green when it comes to directing. His directorial style in Chicago 7 is best described as stately, in the style of ‘Old Hollywood’ dramas with broad shots of the courtroom, close-ups of the actors, and lots of shot-reverse-shot. The result is a competently constructed but rarely invigorating visual palette, with a handful of exceptions. One of these is a brilliant cross-cutting sequence that focuses on Hayden getting grilled by lead lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) on a recording that seems to reveal Hayden egging his supporters on to start rioting. The combination of Rylance and Redmayne going head to head, and scenes from the night of the riots — cutting back and forth, blending voice-over and kinetic action — make the scene riveting. It displays that Sorkin has the ability to construct compelling cinematic sequences. Yet, this means that it also highlights the fact that the rest of the film does not quite measure up to that high watermark. The majority of the film is dominated by people in rooms talking to one another, and Sorkin seems content to let these play out in ways we have seen in dozens of courtrooms dramas before it, a stale rhythm of back and forth only salvaged because of a phenomenal cast (more on them in just a little bit). Even when Sorkin punctuates this with the glimpses of the park where they were camped out and the subsequent violence, I found myself more confused by his camerawork than enlivened. Protestors being brutally attacked by police should be stomach churning and propel us to feel even more connected to the justice the defendants are pursuing, but it falls flat. It seems as though Sorkin spent all of his directorial might on a few key scenes and then remained content to craft the rest of the movie with boring competence. 

I cannot help but wonder if Sorkin pulling double-duty on such a broad story is what undercuts the project’s success. As I noted earlier in this piece, Sorkin’s most memorable writing has come when he was not also sitting behind the director’s chair, which gives me the sense that having a collaborative artistic partner changes the dynamic of the project. If there is someone else there to take lead on the directorial duties, Sorkin can pour all of his focus into the writing. It also means that collaborators can reign in some of his less successful impulses. Neither of those functions are present for Chicago 7, and the result is a script that feels more like an unfinished draft, one that could have used another pair of eyes to pare it down. This feels especially present when considering how Sorkin aims to give significant screen time to the majority of the defendants, all except Froines and Weiner who are broadly remembered by history, and referred to in the movie, as “gimme” defendants who are included only to allow the jury to “feel better” by acquitting them and convicting the others. The script relates months of the trial while filling in the details of the lead up to and execution of the protests and riots.Therefore the  two-hour film has an incredible amount of plot ground to convey while also trying to highlight an expansive ensemble of main figures alongside a murderer’s row of supporting figures. These include the likes of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and what chalks up to an extended cameo from Michael Keaton as Former A.G. Ramsey Clarke. 

I am admittedly being hyper-critical of Sorkin’s work. Because he has reached such improbable highs as a visionary writer in the last few decades, I find it near impossible to separate my experience with his great successes from each new project that he is a part of. While I think Chicago 7 is far from his best showing, it is still the work of arguably the most influential screenwriter of his time showing that he still has more than enough creative juice to run circles around lesser writers. His dialogue crackles with energy both in the courtroom and back at the group’s home base when they argue and defend each other. Sometimes this is humorous, such as when Weiner deadpans “This is the Academy Awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor to be nominated.” Elsewhere it trends to the serious, such as when Kuntsler and co-counsel Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) challenge Hoffman on his treatment of Seale in the courtroom. Hoffman blusters out “Mr. Kunstler, I have lived a very long time and you are the first person ever to suggest that I have discriminated against a Black man” to which Weinglass cuts right in to spit out his retort; “Then let the record show that I am the second.” Those moments have the kind of energy and spirit that this movie would have benefited from more of, but there is just so much character development and plot to cover that the pacing and dialogue too often fall into the same category as the directing: boring competence. 

No matter Sorkin’s artistic successes and struggles, what solidifies this movie as one to watch is the outstanding cast that he has assembled to bring his words to life. By my count, there are no fewer than 14 actors who are given at least one ‘signature’ scene where they get to contribute substantial dialogue. Everyone delivers. Redmayne’s performance as Hayden is utterly naturalistic in his personal struggle between respecting the political system he wants to work within while observing the unfair way in which that system treats him and his compatriots. Strong is hilarious and heartfelt as Rubin, bringing a lightness to the proceedings that is a signature part of Sorkin’s stories, providing laughs and heart. Abdul-Mateen II is scene-stealing in his limited chance to portray Seale, calling attention to the stomach-churning way that he is profiled and refused legal counsel throughout the trial before his case is declared a mistrial and he is removed from the case. I could go on and on about this cast, and can truly find no fault to pass out when it comes to performances. However, one man stands above the rest, and that man is Sacha Baron Cohen. His take on Hoffman expertly straddles the line between the man’s sardonic humor, and the broiling sense of justice that rumbles around inside him, squaring off against his own personal demons. When he is on the stand late in the movie, I found myself forgiving many of the film’s shortcomings because of the power with which Baron Cohen attacked the dialogue, putting words to the passion that Sorkin kept just beneath the surface throughout the rest of the film. The performance is enough to make me want more performances from him that allow him to meld his considerable comedic talent with the obvious knack for humanizing radicalism. 

I am aware now that covering this movie has resulted in a piece that no doubt strains at the seams as I try to contain such a dense film within a few pages. I have no shortage of reflections to provide on The Trial of the Chicago 7, but the sum total of those thoughts is that I simply wish I liked it more than I do. Sorkin, and especially his cast, deliver a film that is moving and timely (having been intentionally released two weeks before the presidential election to benefit from audiences politicized state of mind) at moments, but buckles under the weight of its own magnitude as it goes along. Attempting to craft a story that relays large amounts of historical information, develops an expansive cast of characters, and comments on and critiques American history while also trying to use that historical lens to connect the present simply means it fails to do any of these things as well as it might have if it was focused on a little less. The result is a film that quite likely would have worked better as a limited series where the story would have significantly more time and space to develop characters and ideas without feeling overstuffed and muddled. To succeed in its current filmic mold, I cannot help but think it requires a tightening of story to slim it down to a more manageable form.  I truly hope Sorkin continues delivering scripts at a sharp clip for as long as possible, but maybe he would be better served by placing those masterful pages in the hands of another director who can better execute his stories.

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