(THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 opens in limited engagements Friday October 2nd and later on Netflix Nordic October 16th.)
Directed by Aaron Sorkin, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is an exciting piece of docu-fiction that has moments of eruditeness made lesser for their methods and conclusions. It is a necessary film as an opening statement designed raise questions that refuses to let them linger by the end. One that is content making the most comfortable statements and too timid to step out of line the way American heroes like The Chicago 8 did in their day.
In addition to this, Sorkin (who also wrote the script) can’t help but tamper with history to satisfy his centrist politics. In his hands, an inherently revolutionary trial, one that brought a glimpse of the daily struggle minorities face in America to the average majority, loses the edge of the counterculture, instead opting for simplistic, soothing half-truths. He loads the film with talented professionals, each brilliantly giving performances in spirit, but who break away from reality so often they might as well be playing fictional people altogether.
Coming out on top is Sacha Baron Cohen, playing Abbie Hoffman. Capturing the activist’s wry energy, Cohen leads the way with tremendous power in what is easily his career-best performance. But he is never allowed to speak up the way Hoffman did, and he’s robbed of his voice at the moment of truth towards the end. Sorkin instead favors the story of Tom Hayden, the very picture of a suburbanite, who would become governor of California. All sympathy is on him, even when the scene doesn’t require it.
In attempting to showcase nuance, the scenes instead come off as the writer/director putting his views on a pedestal. Most notable is the scene where Hayden and Hoffman duke it out over their methods. Hayden is disgusted that if cultural reform does happen, people in the future would think of its image as Hoffman’s alternative lifestyles involving free love, drugs, and societal change on an overwhelming level. “But we need to win elections,” Hayden cries. It’s the only way to affect change. Later Hoffman praises Hayden for being a hardcore patriot, agreeing that an election is the same thing as overthrowing the government. Right before his moment on the witness stand is cut before he can even speak.
Hoffman died by suicide in 1989; Hayden became the governor of California, turning increasingly center-right in his politics as the years progressed. It’s not unclear who Sorkin finds affinity with, but it is disappointing. Sorkin still can’t help but demonize alternative lifestyles, especially ones of the past. This hindsight postulating feels smugger considering how the movement was co-opted and diminished by the government in the end.
What’s worse is that Sorkin uses the real tragedy of Black Panther activists Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale as a learning moment for the lily-white Hayden. Upon the reveal that his friend has been executed by the police, instead of allowing Seale to have his moment, the scene is turned over as a learning experience for Hayden. “Everything you do is in some way to spite your father,” Seale says. “You can see how that’s different from a noose in a tree.”
Seale, played with dignity and nuance by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is barely represented in the film, even as his part of the Chicago trial is one of the most explosive displays of systemic racism in history. Held in prison for months awaiting for trial, Seale was denied a lawyer, his motions to represent himself denied, only to eventually be violently bound and gagged in the courtroom for days.
Sorkin wastes the moment for a cheap thrill, followed by a chance for white men of power to assert themselves as respectable in the eyes of the audience. Seale is pushed to the back of the image, bound and gagged, as white men hover around him, asking if he can breathe. Moments later, he’s ushered from the room, never to be mentioned again beyond a brief text on the screen. It’s a moment of GREEN BOOK levels of tone-deafness, written for a room that has had enough of this crap.
The same fictionalization is pushed on all others as well: David Dillinger, a conscientious objector, known as an eloquent, if bullish orator, is played here by John Carroll Lynch as a timid family man who is shocked at his ability to fight back. Jeremy Strong is unrecognizable as Jerry Rubin, the right-hand man to Abbie Hoffman, presented as a Cheech & Chong outcast, easily confused and laidback. In reality, Rubin was a conflicted and headstrong campaigner for social justice, so thoroughly broken by the system, he switched sides in the end. Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden remains virtually untouched negatively; even his are missteps overtly explained to paint him in the best possible light.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the thankless task of playing the Sorkin fence-sitter as Richard Schultz, the man prosecuting the Chicago 7. In the film, he’s a noble and honest government worker with severe doubts about what he’s doing, one who isn’t afraid to go against his bullying bosses or show respect at “the other side” when necessary. It’s maudling fantasy with no basis on reality.
The same goes for Frank Langella, hamming it up as Judge Julius Hoffman. While his dialog is mostly taken directly from the court transcripts, Langella plays Hoffman as a man so far gone that he doesn’t seem to know where he is half the time. It’s a dangerous proposition, as it easily allows the viewer an easy escape: this is not indicative of a dangerously broken system; it’s only one man that is the problem.
There’s also a now Sorkin staple in the fiction, an FBI agent sent to infiltrate the protestor crowd. She’s the only woman with a noticeable part in the story, and she’s as a deceitful jezebel. Why Sorkin feels that such an outright fabrication is necessary for a film already filled with incredible truths is beyond me. But as an addition, especially one entirely based on their gender, it’s a glaring misstep.
The reason why these depictions and political alignments matter is that as a film, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 doesn’t stand by itself. It’s a perfectly functional re-enactment of events that lacks grace and subtlety in the visuals. Originally a project for Steven Spielberg, one can’t help but wonder just how much more depth his mastery of the craft could have brought to the table. Consider the bitter conclusion to the BRIDGE OF SPIES, where the return to the American dream shatters under the stark realization of societal fences built under our very noses.
Instead, we now get hamfisted metaphors (to the point the film even underlines them as they’re happening), a myriad of narrative devices, and wrapped up in a bizarre conclusion that acts like everything received a happy end. Moments in the film echo the styles of Oliver Stone and Danny Boyle, and the cinematography tips its hat multiple times at Janusz Kaminsky. Still, none of this comes together in a meaningful or satisfying way.
Instead, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 mostly will find its value in hopefully reaching those who believe these matters don’t affect them. That they, as powerful (mostly white) people in the west, are removed from the implications of “the others.” At best, it will allow these viewers to question a system that can, at any point, turn on anyone else, and wonder what they can do to prevent it from happening again.
But in presenting itself in a vacuum as an easily digestible, entertaining and exciting movie with a definitive ending, Sorkin may have accomplished the opposite.