Sorkin’s sharp dialogue and the ensemble’s fantastic performances elevate a standard trial to no less than a spectacle
Rhea Srivastava -
In the recent Vietnam war drama, Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee ambitiously frames the sombre reality of the past for a minority, using real film footage from that decade interspersed with contemporary dramatization, as if to signify that the collective anger of the people at the time remains and should so, even in the present. The film is an achievement in the way it brings forth a piece of counter-history into public consciousness. In ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ too, the first few minutes gives you a unique look into the idiosyncrasies and nuances of various anti-war collectives - the Youth International Party or ‘Yippies,’ the Students for the Democratic Society, and the Black Panther Party, amongst others - thus making up the ‘Radical Left.’ The key take away is that all the people featured in the beginning are speaking the same message - Stop the Vietnam War - even if we don’t necessarily identify their specific motivations.
What is the story about?
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin is no less ambitious in his endeavours with the film combining the grandiose of Hollywood-style filmmaking with a huge cast for his anti-establishment drama. ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is based on real events - a look at the notorious anti-war protestors who were accused of inciting riots and planning a conspiracy on the streets of Chicago with reference to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The script is king and the dialogue is his wazir, but the actors make up the star ensemble. Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne plays Tom Hayden, who along with Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are students seeking a change. The defendants' list also includes pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong (now icons of the counterculture era, and then comic relief hippies), and the 8th, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) from the Black Panthers who is denied the right to have legal representation and is bound and gagged for his frustrated outbursts in court. The defense is being handled by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman, while idealistic young attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is prosecuting in front of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, and no relationship to Abbie Hoffman), while Michael Keaton shows up to heat up the court proceedings as star witness former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a classic case of heavy-duty performance drama period piece in which strong writing elevates your regular Oscar bait to a hot-pot of commentary on activism, police brutality, and freedom of speech.
Aaron Sorkin, who makes just his second outing as a director with this film was originally just to enjoy writing credits. The remarkable screenwriter has developed an inimitable, unmissable style over the decades using real events as inspiration and breathing energy into them using consistently sharp dialogue, meticulous editing, and visual enthrall. Much like previous political dramas like A Few Good Men and The West Wing, The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t just have all the ingredients that make a film inimitably Sorkin, but it does so really well. We have come to expect that the larger-than-life characters in the courtroom (and they really were even in reality, look it up) would be indulging in high-octane banter that propels the narrative forward, and for the most part… that’s exactly what happens. But Sorkin is a lover of ‘Make America Great’ dialogue, he knows how to handle a courtroom (most of this film is set in one) and he has the privilege of writing characters that already possess the gift of the gab. In the hands of any other filmmaker, the film could be something really dull but Sorkin manages to combine unbelievably entertaining cinematic moments with real-time conversations that plague America (and the world) even today.
I was intrigued by how much of the bizarre chaos in the courtroom was real, and after a little Google magic, I discovered that a lot of it was. Judge Hoffman openly displays prejudiced behaviour towards Kunstler and his clients, which Sorkin uses masterfully by creating hilarious but frustratingly real gags about his forgetfulness of names and handing out contempt clauses like they’re candy. Schultz is the morally upright and stoic representative of the system, while Cohen’s Hoffman is irreverent and loud. He and his partner Rubin bring about the obvious but dry humour in court. Outside of court, however, we get to unravel systemic bias like the clear injustice behind Bobby Seale’s treatment. Hayden and Hoffman are always at loggerheads, signifying how much trouble the ‘left’ had in the coalition, but much like the actual protest, the trial is a symbol for a bunch of seemingly different archetypes coming together for a common cause, and the best part is that they know that no matter what happens to them, the world is watching.
The actual trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ is an iconic symbol of unity in America’s countercultural history. In its film adaptation, there is a fantastic ensemble bringing it to life, whether it is with supercharged dialogue or veritable chemistry. Baron Cohen and Redmayne lead the pack with their restrained dramatic performances, their frequent sparring being the most fun part. Bobby Seale’s story, perhaps true to its history, doesn’t get the attention it deserves but Abdul-Mateen II still gives the most resilient and memorable performance, in spite of his limited runtime. In a film that (almost) never skips a beat with its pacing, Mark Rylance and Joseph Gordon-Levitt portray two men on either side of the law, both of whom enable us to breathe through the trial and truly connect to its political subtext.
Music & Other Departments
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ isn’t as musically potent as Sorkin’s previous films but there are still a few moments of the protest which allow for some auditory and visual elevation of the material. There are sporadic scenes which are strong reminders of violence and brutality, but most of the film is pretty straightforward, set in the confinements of a court. The usage of flashes of real footage from the Chicago protests is interesting. But perhaps the smartest tool in putting together the production is maintaining a respectful and polite look across the board for most characters. The shaggy-haired Hoffman and Rubin, and the long-haired Kunstler were apparently ostracized by the Judge for their appearance, while he blatantly believes that the smartly dressed Tom Hayden is more accepting of the system. Meanwhile, Bobby Seale is believed to justify violence by the prosecution by virtue of what his ethnic minority represents in the world of old White men. There are some subtle and some outlandish ways of throwing the audience off ‘flower power’ stereotypes.
Almost at the beginning of the film, the trial is compared to the Academy Awards by one of the defendants: “This is the Academy Awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honour just to be nominated.” True. The Trial of the Chicago 7 checks all the prestige film boxes - it’s sharp and entertaining, and supremely mounted. Abdul-Mateen II’s presence is striking in a competent ensemble. The first act of the film is intelligent humour that doesn’t shy away from its anti-establishment stance, while the second act has more disturbing visual and subliminal moments that linger on till later.
As the film is titled, Sorkin is mostly interested in the ‘trial’ of seven individuals and the circumstances in which they were convicted. From his writing’s perspective, it makes sense to concentrate on the drive and style of these characters, rather than grounding the screenplay in their background and interplay. But to some extent, this leaves out the depth of their specific stories. Some actors are significantly sidelined, like Abdul-Mateen II, because I’m sure from a contemporary retrospective lens, we can give Bobby Seale a lot more justice. All he gets is a truly horrific scene that represents the Black American struggle, but what after that? When the film isn’t in its space of bouncy dialogue, it feels like any odd courtroom drama on television, oftentimes giving itself a grand pat on the back for coming up with the next bold statement that will, in fact, ‘make America great again,’ or presenting a zinger of a witness in the 11th hour.
Did I enjoy it?
Of course! The film is slick, entertaining, and objectively well-made. The passion of those involved in elevating the film to gripping drama is palpable.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. Granted that sometimes the great dialogue can be a detriment to a real-life story… I can’t say that the film is a successful human story but it’s still a very timely and important tale to tell.