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Non-Review Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin’s second feature film as director, following on from Molly’s Game.

However, the project originated with Steven Spielberg. The finished film includes the Dreamworks logo. Watching the movie, it feels like Sorkin is channeling Spielberg, particularly with the film’s delicate balance of historical accuracy and its relatively heartening final act. Indeed, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s most recent film, The Post. It is another movie about the troubled transition from the flawed utopian idealism of the sixties to the brutal political cynicism of the seventies.

Cycles of mistrust.

In many ways, The Trial of the Chicago 7 appeals to Sorkin’s strengths as a writer. After all, Sorkin rose to prominence as the writer of A Few Good Men, another court room drama. The basic premise of The Trial of the Chicago 7 involves placing a bunch of similar-but-distinct characters in a locked room together and focusing on the group dynamics, which provides a lot of space for Sorkin to demonstrate his skill with dialogue and characterisation. There’s a lot of clever detail and definition between the protagonists in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

To be fair, The Trial of the Chicago 7 suffers slightly from being a little heavy-handed in places. As with Spielberg and The Post, Sorkin is very much aware of the movie’s contemporary resonance and occasionally leans into it a little too eagerly. Beyond that, the depiction of events from the eponymous trial can occasionally seem a little episodic and haphazard. Still, there’s a lot to recommend The Trial of the Chicago 7, particular as an old-fashioned example of an ensemble historical drama.

Courting controversy.

Sorkin originally wrote the script that would become The Trial of the Chicago 7 over a decade ago, in 2007. The writer had been invited to Steven Spielberg’s house and sold on the idea, even if he was initially unclear at the role that he would play in developing the concept. In hindsight, it is easy to see why a director like Spielberg and a writer like Sorkin would have gravitated towards a story like The Trial of the Chicago 7 towards the end of the Bush era. The story of this “political trial” would have seemed timely in the era of the War on Terror and the PATRIOT Act.

Of course, times have changed. The world is in a very different place than it was when The Trial of the Chicago 7 was originally pitched and developed. The story’s resonances have shifted slightly, in the context of another President of the United States who seems eager to use the Justice Department and the Attorney General as a political cudgel. If anything, the story somehow feels more timely than when it originated. The Trial of the Chicago 7 cannot avoid these contemporary echoes. In fact, Sorkin leans into them. One early scene even features a “lock them up!” placard.

A banner year.

There are moments where this all becomes a bit too much. At one point, Hoffman recalls how the group ended up chased by the police on the night of the protest, and ended up cornered outside a bar populated by the city’s political class who existed at a remove from what was happening in the real world. As the group are confronted in front of a smoked-glass mirror, the bar patrons remain mostly oblivious. Only a single woman seems to notice what is happening through the front window. “Am I the only one seeing this?” she asks.

Sorkin’s script is not subtle. This sequence is framed by Hoffman himself articulating the subtext for any audience members who might have missed it. “Sixties outside the bar, fifties inside the bar,” he summarises at the end of a longer discussion. However, there is more. As the cops push in against the protesters and press them against that thin glass frame, Hoffman remarks, “And then, an unnecessary metaphor!” It is at least self-aware, but it doesn’t distract from the heavy-handedness.

Getting on board.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is part of a larger cultural movement. Much has been written about how the current political crisis in the United States mirrors the chaos of 1968, a comparison that has been made for years but only grows more relevant. It is no surprise to see a wave of pop culture interrogating that moment, exploring the curdling of sixties idealism into seventies disillusionment. The Post is an obvious point of comparison, but so is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Notably, The Trial of the Chicago 7 releases on Netflix alongside a remake of The Boys in the Band.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is never particularly subtle in what it is saying. Young attorney Richard Schultz shows up to meet Attorney General John N. Mitchell just as they are changing the presidential portrait in his reception area – “a historic moment.” Lyndon B. Johnson is replaced by Richard M. Nixon. Mitchell is still smarting from a perceived slight from his predecessor Ramsey Clark, but the message that he is sending is clear, “The decade’s over. The grown-ups are back.”

Getting the defense on the fence.

However, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not particularly interested in the return of these reactionary forces. Instead, Sorkin is more compelled by the revolutionary forces that find themselves placed on trial over the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The eight assembled figures represent different facets of the American left and liberal movements, and one of the great ironies of the trial, from which The Trial of the Chicago 7 mines a great deal of drama, is the sense in which many of these figures seem as far from each other as they do from Richard Nixon himself.

Again, it makes sense that Sorkin would hone in on this as a source of potent character drama. Most obviously, it allows him to play characters off one another in interesting ways, exploring “the narcissism of minor differences” among a group of people who all nominally agree on a core set of beliefs – that the Vietnam War is unjust, that American society is warped, that the government does not serve its people – but who disagree about the best approach to remedy these problems.

March of time.

This sort of ideological schism was one of the driving forces on The West Wing, perhaps Sorkin’s signature work. The West Wingwhich is receiving its own revival later this year – often felt like a utopian debate between the competing facets of liberalism, built on the utopian idea that it is possible to reason and debate a solution to any problem with the right intentions. The Trial of the Chicago 7 in some ways feels like an update of that template, one which explores the same debates in a more contentious context, removed from the comfort of the Clinton era.

The tensions in The Trial of the Chicago 7 are a lot more palpable and a lot more intense. The divisions between the figureheads of the American liberal movement in The Trial of the Chicago 7 are acknowledged as more fundamental and perhaps even more legitimate than they were on The West Wing. Notably, The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulls few punches in the establishment’s treatment of Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was arrested despite playing no role in organising the protests because the prosecutors wanted a black man on trial.

Seale-ing the deal.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 acknowledges that Bobby’s experiences are fundamentally different from those of his fellow accused, and in doing so draws attention to the lack of solidarity between these groups. This gets at an interesting tension within The Trial of the Chicago 7 that the film acknowledges, but never really tries to resolve. This is a story about the struggles within the American progressive movement, but it is largely concerned with the experiences of a bunch of white (and Jewish) middle-class men, who sit apart from their one black colleague.

Of course, it would be difficult to carve out space for women or minority voices within the structure of The Trial of the Chicago 7 without fundamentally reworking the central plot. Sorkin does find places for women and people of colour on the periphery of his story. More than that, his treatment of Bobby Seale makes it clear that the writer and director is aware of this marginalisation, even while working within the confines of the story that he wants to tell. The result is a work that seems cognisant of the limitations of a certain kind of liberalism, albeit not as forcefully as it might be.

Trial and error.

In terms of positioning The Trial of the Chicago 7 within the broader political context of Sorkin’s body of work, the closest thing that the film has to a hero is perhaps defense attorney William Kuntsler, who spends most of the runtime trying to negotiate between the various factions competing to set the defense team’s agenda while managing the competing egos. Kuntsler serves as both the film’s conscience and its common sense, mediating between more aggressively ideological constituencies.

The movie’s big ideological schism is between the establishment figure of Tom Hayden and the radical anarchist Abbie Hoffman. Hayden argues for change within the structures of government. His first priority is to cultivate a friendly face of the movement that plays to respectability. He critiques Hoffman’s recklessness and selfishness, arguing it undermines the movement to the public. “So we’ll lose elections,” he warns. When Hoffman complains that elections aren’t the most important thing, Hayden counters, “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second.”

“Forget it, Bobby. It’s Chi-town.”

This is where The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most interesting, in large part because Sorkin’s work on shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom would suggest that his sympathies as a writer and director would lie with Hayden – with the idea of pragmatism as essential to politics. However, The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays out its conflict between Hoffman and Hayden with impressive nuance and consideration, affording both figures dignity and complexity. Indeed, the film is cleverly designed by Sorkin to play off the audience’s expectations of where his sympathies might lie.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 benefits greatly from some canny ensemble casting, and Sorkin’s ability to manage a large and multifaceted ensemble. Mark Rylance does great work holding the film together as Kunstler, while Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen are both effective as Hayden and Hoffman respectively. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does fantastic work as Bobby Seale, all the more impressive for the the way the movie isolates him from the rest of the ensemble.

Putting a (stu)dent in the prosecution’s arguments.

However, the film is packed with recognisable character actors who help to breathe life into the supporting players at the periphery of the story. Sorkin is careful to give each major character some definition and hint at complexity. Jeremy Strong is perhaps the breakout as Jerry Rubin, who finds himself cast as a sidekick to Hoffman, but also serves as the movie’s comic relief and its heart. Frank Langella does good work as Judge Julius Hoffman. Despite prosecuting the eponymous group, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Richard Schultz as a man of integrity and decency.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a technically impressive film, and often serves as a triumph of old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. Daniel Pemberton’s score furthers the “vintage Spielberg” comparisons by evoking the soundscapes of John Williams. However, special credit is due to editor Alan Baumgarten, who manages the film’s various transitions to and from the events of 1968 with considerable grace. The Trial of the Chicago 7 flows organically, but is never especially showy.

Seventh heaven.

In this way, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like an older kind of film. It evokes the sort of earnest ensemble political historical dramas of the nineties, albeit one updated to reflect a much more troubled time. In this way, it feels like something of a companion piece to Just Mercy, which attempted something similar with the issue-driven social commentary movies of the nineties. Sorkin’s direction plays a major role here, favouring sweeping and stately camera movements that lend the movie a very traditional aesthetic.

As such, it feels appropriate that The Trial of the Chicago 7 began as a potential awards contender for Paramount. As with so many movies, the situation changed dramatically with the current global pandemic, and so it was sold to Netflix for a reported $56m. In its own weird way, this feels appropriate for the film itself, which exists in a weird limbo state between an older Hollywood approach to these sorts of issues and a more volatile current moment.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a well-made exploration of a troubled moment in American history with unsettling contemporary resonance. Although Sorkin is occasionally a little too heavy-handed for his own good, the film plays best as an example of the strengths of old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not necessarily the most vital or insightful movie for the current moment, but it is a thoughtful and reflective one that tries to use the cinematic language of an earlier era to comment on the present.

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