The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people.
Aaron Sorkin writes and directs “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” an indictment of the rot within the establishment. On the outside the establishment dons American idealism of truth, fairness, equality, and justice but in actuality it is a well-greased, well-funded machine designed to keep the powerful in place and those who challenge it at the heel. Although this story takes place in 1968 and 1969, it is striking how this case remains relevant today: progressives having to fight tooth and nail—both the right and the left—just to have a say at the table, black Americans being treated as lesser people, and the denial or repression of facts when convenient in order to tip the balance toward an agenda.
As expected from a Sorkin project, the screenplay is awash with beautiful words with real attitude and perspective behind them. Simply listening to the dialogue makes the viewers smile. Although occasionally overwritten—like inserting a witty joke or clever wordplay which at times disrupts the flow or feeling of a scene, perhaps even messages it wishes to impart—I couldn’t help but admire its intelligence, insight, and willingness to entertain not through action but by means of presenting and tackling complex ideas. Therein, we take the side of the defendants. But it is not required that we agree with the decisions a few of them make to achieve their goals. This is a film for mature audiences, certainly for those who have a penchant for courtroom dramas.
Leaders from various organizations—Students for a Democratic Society (Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp), Youth International Party (Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong), National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (John Carroll Lynch), and the Black Panther Party (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)—organize what is supposed to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, namely to demand the U.S. government to end the war in Vietnam. Those who know their history will know it ended in violence.
For the majority of the picture, which takes place in 1969 when eight defendants—not seven—are on trial for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot, we are provided pieces of the puzzle and it is a wonderful challenge to make sense of them for two reasons: the crackling screenplay jumps between the past and the present as if were on stimulants and the characters are almost never on the same page. The latter is especially interesting because every single defendant is left-leaning but they vary in their approach on how to come out the other side—or if they even want to. This leads to conflict within the group, which creates entertaining drama, particularly when the scene-stealing Cohen is involved. His physical presence is pronounced, but he ensures that what his character must express is communicated with urgency.
The former element is what I anticipated from Sorkin—and so I wasn’t that impressed with the familiar technical maneuverings. In general, I prefer filmmakers who try to do too much rather than too little, but it would have been a breath of fresh air for this writer-director to have slowed it down and really honed in on the characters of the defendants. I walked away from the picture feeling like I knew two or three of them well enough—Abbie Hoffman (Cohen), Tom Hayden (Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen)—but the others remain somewhat of a mystery.
There are moments during the trial when I caught my eyes darting toward the quieter characters, to observe how their body languages react to lines of questioning when the plaintiff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) examines witnesses; how their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), attempts to defog a situation and underscore their innocence; how the biased judge (Frank Langella—inspired casting choice because he had played Richard Nixon more than a decade ago in Ron Howard’s terrific “Frost/Nixon” in this Nixon-era trial) looks at and treats them with disdain at every opportunity—his courtroom, his rules, forgetting he works for the United States of America.
I was entertained by “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but it did not captivate me like the best courtroom dramas: Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” and “The Verdict,” Stanley Kramer’s “Inherit the Wind,” and Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” quickly come to mind. I did not feel as though I were in the seats of those progressive activists. I wanted to touch their sweat, to feel their hearts palpitating, to see the pupils in their eyes dilating. No, I did not even feel to be a part of the jury. I suppose… I felt I was a part of the gallery, about three or four rows behind the partition—not a bad place to be: good enough, but not ideal when I wish to get down and dirty.