If you’re a fan (or detractor) of the works of Aaron Sorkin, you know he keeps to some pretty well-established patterns. Call them trademarks or tropes depending on how much you like them. But throughout his career, both as a writer and director, you can always see his earmarks. His scripts are often witty, dialogue-heavy, and full of cultural/political references. He has an unbridled love of Broadway. The “walk-and-talk” became a staple of shows like The West Wing and Sports Night. He can also be a bit heavy-handed in his messaging, and has occasionally had a problematic habit of “mansplaining” to his female characters, many of whom were underserved from a development perspective until his success with Molly’s Game a couple years ago.
His latest effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays mostly to his strengths, using a tremendously talented cast of character actors to tell an overly dramatic version of one of the most ridiculous miscarriages of justice in the 20th century. The film is oftentimes funny and unintentionally poignant, and given the artistic license taken with the events of the titular trial, has the feel of a truly entertaining stage play.
The film takes place in 1969, a year after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Several anti-Vietnam organizations clashed with police over the course of several days, and while the outgoing Johnson administration declined to prosecute anyone at the federal level, the new Nixon administration has decided to throw the book at the leaders of these groups. The film posits that the new Attorney General, John Mitchell (played by John Doman) wants to both introduce some suppression of so-called “permissive” lifestyles as well as avenge a perceived slight from the former AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton, used mostly for an extended third act cameo). He hires a young prosecutor named Richard Schultz (a wonderfully stoic Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who insists that no crime was committed, whether or not he agrees with their ideologies, but still takes up the case and promises a conviction.
The title defendants are introduced in a really well-put together montage, excluding two members – Lee Weiner and John Froines (played by Noah Robbins and Daniel Flaherty, respectively) – because as the film establishes, those two really had no involvement in the riots and are not high-profile targets, merely sympathetic props to get acquitted so the jury will be more comfortable convicting the others. The pair have an almost comical lack of dialogue and agency in the film, just one of many absurdities highlighted in this kangaroo court trial.
It also helps to have a couple title characters shunted to the side, because the rest of the ensemble cast fights for the spotlight throughout. Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely electric as Abbie Hoffman, who openly mocks the proceedings and is often cross-cut in montage to a bar where he performs a stand-up routine of open commentary on the trial, highlighting how silly everything is. Seriously, his performance is worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination. Eddie Redmayne, who I normally don’t really care for (there’s a scene where he and Michael Keaton are in court together, and it was all I could do not to demand he apologize on his knees and hand over his Oscar – YOU SAT IN A CHAIR FOR TWO HOURS! HOW IS THAT ACTING?), brings a naïve, Topher Grace-like charm to Tom Hayden, and for the first time since Les Misérables, I actually enjoyed his performance. John Carroll Lynch (best known for his stint on The Drew Carey Show as Drew’s cross-dressing brother Steve, who eventually marries Mimi) has a simmering dignity as pacifist David Dellinger. Alex Sharp and Jeremy Strong also have great moments as Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin.
Outside the main seven, The group is defended by Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, sporting a tremendously bad combover (seriously, the Hair & Makeup teams deserve Academy consideration here), an exasperated civil rights attorney who is constantly silenced by the severely biased judge in the case, Julius Hoffman, played so well by Frank Langella, who coincidentally played Nixon himself in Frost/Nixon, so I’m sure he was familiar with the source material. The most apparent example of Hoffman’s prejudice is in the form of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panthers, who is initially the eighth defendant in the trial, despite taking no part in the riots and having no counsel of his own, with his attorney hospitalized. His presence is an immediate and constant reminder that justice will not be blind in this case.
The film is told through a rotation of commentary, testimony, and flashbacks to the actual events. This is where Sorkin gets his “walk-and-talks” in, what with the courtroom being a closed environment. And honestly, protest marches are the most literal form of the practice imaginable, so why not cram exposition into these moments? The staging of these flashbacks makes for a great bit of perspective to contrast with the farce going on in the courtroom, which despite the fact that the script was originally written in 2007 (with Steven Spielberg directing; Sorkin confirmed his dual role in 2018), appears to be accidentally prescient, given recent events where peaceful protests are met with armed opposition and violence from police, an Attorney General looking to silence dissent, and a judge determining people’s fates despite obvious bias and a rating of “Not Qualified” from the American Bar Association. Side note: seriously, on that last point, the judges Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have crammed onto the federal bench over the last four years have gotten so many unqualified ratings from the ABA that McConnell decided to no longer accept their advice; that’s how committed they are to permanently enshrining their demagoguery. What’s that old line about not learning from history?
There appear to be two major influences on this work, at least from where I sit. The first is one of Sorkin’s previous projects, The Newsroom. Running on HBO for three seasons (because Sorkin decided to end the show rather than pass off the creative aspects to a full writing staff), the show represented the best and worst of Sorkin’s habits, but as a media professional, I loved it, because the core of its 20/20 hindsight was an essential message that the media – especially cable news – should eschew ratings for facts, that the truth does not take a political side, and it’s better to get the story right than get it out first. At least, that was the priority from the fictional ACN news operation. The character development with the cast is hit or miss depending on your sensibilities and taste. This film, in that same spirit, is focused on the truth of what happened in Chicago in the summer of ’68, and on retroactively getting it right after a sham trial that sought only to silence opposition rather than punish any actual crime (not pictured in the film, there was a concurrent trial of five police officers in connection with the riots, brought only to present the appearance of fairness; they were all quickly acquitted).
Now, though I mention the importance of truth, there is a lot of artistic license taken with the proceedings, and that brings us to the second influence, the theatre. As I mentioned, Sorkin is a huge fan of the stage. In his other shows and films, he’s inserted a litany of references over the years, and would often cast Broadway actors in major roles, including Alex Sharp in this very movie. As such, he presents the trial with the grand spectacle of a play, with blocking and pacing of line deliveries done in that exact style. Even outside the courtroom, the scenes in offices or out in the park all move and flow as if there’s a live audience watching just beyond the edge of a stage, laughing, clapping, and gasping at just the appropriate moments. Sorkin even uses a cast of extras filling the seats in the courtroom to react as an audience would, presenting us with a mass crowd surrogate. I got the feeling more than a few times that Sorkin was trying to stage the opposite of 12 Angry Men, which as a play and a film is concerned only with jury deliberations. Here, we get everything up to that point, because anyone who knows the history of this moment knows the outcome, and given the multitude of manipulations, it’s never in doubt to begin with.
This is why, contrary to my normal response to this sort of revisionist history, I’m mostly okay with the changes Sorkin made, both to the trial itself and the overall timeline of the film. He’s going for the most dramatic version of events to highlight just how royally fucked these seven (eight) men were for the oh-so heinous crime of disagreeing with a war. So while the presentation of events isn’t exactly accurate in the most literal sense, it aids the overall thematic verisimilitude, inviting the viewer to learn more about the incident. I myself spent a good hour reading up on things after I finished watching the movie, so kudos to Sorkin for piquing my interest if nothing else. Yes, it can get a little clunky at times, and some of the changes don’t make all that much sense (particularly as it relates to Bobby Seale’s timeline in the court), which is why I don’t rate this film as high as I might have otherwise, but on the whole, the film accomplishes what I think are its goals. It tells the story, it relates to modern day, and we get some truly spectacular acting to handle a heavy, yet clever script. Throughout the film, Judge Hoffman holds the entire defense in contempt multiple times. Sorkin holds the judicial system of the era in equal regard, and prosecutes his case convincingly, even though I’m sure those who see themselves put on trial by his central conceit would object.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite courtroom drama? Was I the only one who first thought Sacha Baron Cohen was Adam Carolla, you know, until he spoke, and also until I realized Carolla wouldn’t be caught dead defending hippies? Let me know!