You know the old saying; that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Living through the pandemic year of 2020 is giving us a daily reminder of why it’s important to know our history in order to avoid the pitfalls that have dragged us down before. The experience of a botched pandemic response is making us look back at the mistakes made during the 1918 pandemic, and how so much of it has fallen in line the same way. The social unrest related to the misuse of force from law enforcement and the government is also making us look again at a similar time in America when people were having to reckon with the state of our country. Like today, protests and riots were gripping cities across the country. The difference was that civil unrest in that time was due to the unpopular Vietnam War. Though the war was a major catalyst of protest, the decade before had seen a lot of civil unrest due to the fight for justice and equal rights for many the African American community. The year of 1968 was a particular turning point for America and it’s shifting culture. Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, and the American Left, which had been fighting hard for Civil Rights and an end to the War for years, was now demoralized and splintered, and facing a tough future in an election year. This led to the infamous Chicago Riot outside the Democratic National Convention, where many of the anti-war protestors clashed with police officers and caused havoc within the city. These events, along with the over zealous response of Mayor Daley’s police force, were largely observed as what brought victory to President Richard Nixon in that 1968 election, and of course, all the progress that the American Left had hoped to have gotten accomplished out of their protests only ended up leading to a backwards slide in their cause. And the Nixon administration would in turn break the law within the White House and further engage in Vietnam for many years more.
This pivotal point in the history of American resistance would be most exemplified by the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7. In what has since been observed as a politically motivated move to make an example of “dangerous” left-wing agitators by the Nixon Administration, seven of the most high profile participants were put on trail in Chicago for what was described as “crossing state-lines to incite a riot” which is a federal offense. Though the men were found guilty, their imprisonment had the opposite effect, and they became heroes of resistance to a new generation of Anti-Establishment protestors. The story of the 7 has carried on as a monumental moment of defiance in the face of oppression, and it still inspires people today to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in. The story has been especially popular to filmmakers in Hollywood, who have tried many times to bring the story of the 7 to the big screen. Aaron Sorkin wrote his treatment for a dramatization of the the infamous trial shortly after leaving his show, The West Wing, in the mid-2000’s. For a while, it looked like Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film, eyeing it as a possible next project after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and with actor Heath Ledger in a lead role. However, the writer’s strike of 2007 put the project on hold and Ledger’s untimely death also dealt the movie another blow, which led to Spielberg moving on shortly after. After a while, Paul Greengrass began to circle around Sorkin’s screenplay, with Ben Stiller in tow to help produce and star. But further delays led them to leave as well, and eventually Amblin studios, which held the rights, decided to let the project go. Once it landed at Paramount, a slew of other directors and actors came and went. Then Netflix stepped in to bring in the final needed funding the movie needed, and more importantly, Sorkin himself stepped in to direct the movie himself. And the timing for this kind of movie could not be more perfect given what’s been going on this year. The only question is, was the delay worth it and is it the movie we need right now in our own turbulent time.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduces us right away to the men who would go on to define the movement, observing their moments before they made their way to Chicago. We meet straight laced, grass roots anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the flashy, irreverent founders of the Yippie Movement Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and two protestors caught up in the middle, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty). In addition, to these seven, another defendant is put on trial, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who rightly points out that he has no connection to the other defendants and is only being tried there as a means of connecting his radical group with the others, and he’s there without proper counsel. The trial is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has little tolerance for disruption in his court. Defending the Chicago 7 are two lawyers, the more reserved Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankmen) and the seasoned and confrontational William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). On the other side, representing the Justice Department of the United States, are US attorneys Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), under the direction of new Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), who is still sore about a perceived insult from out-going AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). Through testimony and flash backs, the events of the infamous DNC riots are presented to us, piecing together how each individual played their part in what happened, and allowing us to see if any of their actions did indeed cross the line. When not in the courtroom, we see the many different personality types begin to clash, particularly between the more pragmatic Hayden and the show-boaty flash of Hoffman. All in all, it shows us that there is more at stake than just their innocence in the face of the law when it comes to this trial. It’s about whether or not this trial is going to imprison their voices as well.
It is amazing how long it actually took for this movie to get made, and how it’s eventual timing proved to be more spot on than perhaps anyone realized. Aaron Sorkin certainly hasn’t been hurting for success since he wrote his first draft for The Trail of the Chicago 7 back in the aughts. He won an Academy Award for his monumental screenplay for The Social Network (2010), was nominated for another for Moneyball (2011), and even went on to direct his first feature, Molly’s Game (2017). Having gotten that first directorial effort out of the way was probably the best thing for Sorkin to finally make Chicago 7 a reality, because it gave him the confidence to tackle a story with as much weight as this one, with all the lessons learned about how to actually do it properly. When some writers move into directing, it can often lead to mixed results, as some writers grow too attached to their writing and leave too much in. That was honestly the one problem with Molly’s Game as a film; Sorkin’s reluctance to trim stuff down and streamline the plot, thereby leaving the film bloated. Given that Chicago 7 had been passed around between several different directors before, all helping him to parse the story down to all the essentials, it helped to give Sorkin the much needed fine tuning that the script called for before he could start rolling camera. All Sorkin needed to do as a director was not mess it up, and thankfully he didn’t. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a major step up for the legendary writer turned director, and it proves that he is now as much of a force behind the camera as he is in drafting a screenplay. And to be very honest, it’s probably a good thing that this movie waited for the moment when Sorkin himself could step into that role, because I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would’ve fulfilled what the script needed.
There’s no doubt about it upon watching this film; this is a Sorkin movie through and through. Aaron Sorkin is one of those rare screenwriters today whose rhythm in dialogue is instantly recognizable. The only other writers who I would say come close to having that stature would be either Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Charlie Kaufman. What sets Sorkin apart is the rapid fire nature of his writing. The man is exceptionally good at writing back and forth arguments between his characters, which does fit perfectly in a courtroom setting. If anything, it’s the screenwriting in this movie that is the main attraction. Like with Social Network and many of his other standout screenplays throughout his career, Sorkin balances back and forth between so many different tones in his writing, and does so with incredible finesse. Within the span of a couple minutes, he could have as many as five different characters shouting off, delivering anything from important facts to non-sequiturs, to flagrant insults, to even just a bad joke. The incredible way he writes is that so many elements come at you from so many directions, and yet it all manages to hit the mark. Court room dramas can often drift into the mundane, but Sorkin manages to engage the viewer through every moment, making sure you hang on every word, even if it’s just a throw-away punchline. Given that he’s working with a narrative focused on 7 different individuals, and the people surrounding them, and that he has to make them all distinctive from one another, and make the weight of their moment in time relevant to the viewer, Aaron Sorkin is certainly putting together what may be his most complex film yet. And the end result is an exceptional achievement not only in measured direction, but also in complex story-telling. Sorkin could have been a show off here, which he sometimes can be (especially in his television shows), but with Chicago 7, he displays a level of maturity as a filmmaker that rises to the challenge of his own distinctive writing.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s put together a stellar cast as well. There were so many big names that have circled their wagons around this project, including the previously mentioned Ledger. Will Smith, Seth Rogan, William Hurt, and Jonathan Majors were all at some points attach to this film, before the delays began to change plans. The cast that did end up in the movie all do their jobs very well, especially those in the courtroom itself. The role of Tom Hayden is a nice departure for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who manages to hide his British accent surprisingly well in the role. He’s also the character who experiences the most growth through the movie, which he handles pretty well. Sacha Baron Cohen of course gets the flashiest role in the movie as Abbie Hoffman, and while I do think he perfectly captured the cadence of the notorious Yippie leader, he doesn’t quite master the American accent as well as Redmayne, often letting his British accent slip a couple times. Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deliver solid supporting performances throughout the movie. However, the two stand outs that I think steal the movie away from the others are Yahya Abdul Mateen and Frank Langella as Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman respectively. Mateen’s Seale is an exceptional characterization that really underlines the frustration of African American people who are unfairly treated by the Justice system, and his performance really captures that passionate defiance in a compelling way. On the opposite end, Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a perfect portrayal of a dispassionate judge who is completely out of his element proceeding over a trial of this nature. His judge Hoffman in the end makes an effect antagonistic representation of the forces working against the 7 and the futility of the system trying to use the courtroom as a means of controlling speech. There’s no doubt that Sorkin could find plenty of eager actors willing to bring his words to life. It’s just fortunate that each and every one fills their respective roles to perfection.
It’s also interesting that Sorkin, for the first time, is working entirely within a different period. Social Network, Moneyball, and Molly’s Game were all recent history, torn from the headlines. Here, Sorkin is working in a time period dating over 50 years ago. In doing so, he has to work his dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel out of step with the time period, and thankfully it doesn’t. You do buy into this being a flash of time within the late 1960’s, when Vietnam was still raging and political upheaval was happening all around. I think it says more about our time that so much of this movie feels so current to today. What I like best about what Sorkin has done here as a director is the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much as a director. He lets the screenplay and the performances carry the film, and just lets the camera observe. If the movie had been done by a different director, I think a lot of Sorkin’s rhythm would have been lost in translation. Spielberg would have gotten good performances to be sure, but he might have been too manipulative as well, if he tried to underscore several scenes with a sweeping John Williams crescendo. And Paul Greengrass would’ve had the camera shaking needlessly with his hand held style. Sorkin on the other hand just holds the camera steady and uses the power of editing to match the rhythm of his words. The movie is devoid of big, operatic moments, and instead just allows the scenes to flow naturally. I especially like how the flash backs are used in conjunction with what is said in court. He’s used this technique before in movies like Steve Jobs (2015), Social Network, and even going as far back as his script for A Few Good Men (1992). There’s a fantastic scene late in the film when Eddie Redmayne is cross-examined with a tape recording being used as evidence, and it intercuts with the incident in question, and it’s edited together in a perfectly tuned way to rev up the tension of the moment. Like I said, over the course of writing so many films, and having already directed a feature before, The Trial of the Chicago 7 marks a bold step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a force in the director’s chair.
With the way the world is right now, there definitely needs to be a film that puts history and it’s effect on the present into perspective, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly what we need right now. It is a important reminder of where we have been as a nation, and how some problems go unsolved and end up repeating themselves over time. In the trial of the Chicago 7, America saw for the first time people put on public trail not for the crimes that they committed, but for the threat that their message could mean to the establishment. Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale were put on trial for what Hoffman described as “their thoughts’ which were deemed dangerous by the then Nixon Administration. But the attempt to silence the Chicago 7 only added to their legend and their act of defiance through their activism and trial still inspires activists to this very day. As we face a pivotal election day in the middle of a still raging pandemic, the stakes could not be made more clear about where we stand as a nation, and the example of the Chicago 7 feels more relevant than ever. In the end, it probably was for the best that Aaron Sorkin’s re-telling of the Chicago 7 trial took this long to become a reality, because it eventually came out at the most important time that it could. We are at yet another tipping point in our nations history, where the rights of citizens from every walk of life is at stake in this election, as are the fundamental pillars of our democracy. The real gift of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it reminds us of the fact that it is hard to kill an idea, and that people will always fight for the things that they value. We have been in this position before, and though finding justice is hard, it will always in some way find a way to become a reality. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for our freedoms; let’s not make their sacrifice go in vain, and continue the fight for the things that we value.