The latest from legendary writer-turned-upstart-director Aaron Sorkin is The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film is based on true events that took place surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, specifically those of violent riots that occurred during that time. The story is that of the Chicago 7, the group of men charged with inciting the riots in Grant Park and other locations which turned violent, and the subsequent trial. An all-star cast list includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Matten II, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeremy Strong, John Carrol Lynch, Michael Keaton, and Alex Sharp among others. The film was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay 14 years ago. This is only his second time in the director’s chair.
I’m somewhat cautious of how I want to describe this film. The reason for that caution is that I’m very cognisant of my intense, unyielding bias for the brain that bore this film. Aaron Sorkin is my favourite writer in the history of the known universe. I think he’s better than Shakespeare. Anyone who knows me, and I figure there’s a decent chance anyone who does specifically isn’t reading this review for fear of the tangent I could go on, would be able to describe my apostle-like reverence for this man’s work. The aspects of my admiration are many, but, in its shortest form, I love his point of view. I love the way he paints the world, romantic and good, where there exist people, however few, that are simply hardwired to do the right thing (anyone who wants to fight with me about whether or not his representation of politics or media is naïve and hopelessly idealistic is welcome to. Be prepared for an in-depth distinction between idealism and romanticism). The best thing to have ever been on a screen, for me, is a show called The West Wing, which was created by him and written by him for 4 years. If you haven’t seen it…you really, really should. When it’s not rosy valentines to public service, it’s a shockingly nuanced character study of non-heroes (think The Social Network, which is still his best big-screen work). Either way, he’s simply the best dialogue writer in history, and I could go on, and on, and on, and on about how much I love his work.
Which is why I was worried I’m going to go overboard. Then I remembered that this is my site, and I can write whatever I want. Seriously though, this is an incredible film. Naturally the writing is superlative. I mean, it’s about as close to perfect as you can get. The actors have done a great job; Sorkin dialogue is well understood to be a beast unto itself, but he’s supported by a cast that knew what they were signing up for. Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen are both fantastic as Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, playing off each other so incredibly well. Frank Langella is absolutely repulsive, which is to say he hit it out of the park. Mark Rylance was brilliant when he needed to be, a couple particular moments in the court (and at least one out of it) come to mind. Yahya Abdul-Mateen might’ve been the strongest single performance, as Bobby Seale, and the strength of his performance might’ve been matched by one or two particular scenes for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Even Michael Keaton shows up for his relatively very small part. I’d say Jeremy Strong was the weakest of them performance-wise, there were moments when he fell slightly flat, but even he had a few great moments (the Grant Park riot scene being chief among them).
One of the things I read most in the reviews leading up to the film’s release was that the film might’ve been better if someone other than Sorkin had directed it. This was only Sorkin’s second film as a director (the first was Molly’s Game). I’m not going to pretend that there weren’t moments where his inexperience showed, which manifested mainly in some rougher transitions (particularly one sort of inexplicable fade to black), but, on the whole, I actually thought he did more than just direct it adequately. Again, there were moments that were indicative of someone who hasn’t necessarily done this ten times before, but I think you can chalk those up to learning curves that you need to sort out at some point. Aside from those few moments, the film actually has a brilliant pace and flair about it. He’s a fan of heavy intercuts, and my God does he make them work. The opening sequence that introduced all of the characters, the depiction of how things got out of control at the second protest, every second of the court scene, were all examples of moments where Sorkin brought his own directorial flair to the table, and his sense of rhythm for his own words was a sight to see. He even really nailed the riot scenes, which I was expecting to be the source of the problem (I don’t think you could find a scene with half that much action in it in anything he’s ever done before). I also want to touch briefly on the representation in this film, because Sorkin gets hung all the time with claims of naïve, giddy idealism, which was something I read going into this film as well. Now, I take some amount of issue with that under normal circumstances, but I’d actually point out that, for this film, I’m not sure where one would locate the giddiness. There are tweaks to how things actually happened in the courtroom, Richard Schultz was not seen to actually display the conscience he did in the film after Bobby Seale was gagged in the court (his was declared a mistrial, but only after he remained bound and gagged in court for three days) and the reading of the names of the dead was done, but earlier in the trial, and to much less dramatic effect as it was in the movie. Beyond that, the facts about the ruling being overturned are, well, facts. But, in the face of the judge and the tediousness of getting a fair trial, this couldn’t be called The West Wing by any stretch. This film’s not about everything working out, it’s about good people, lots of points of view, and an ideological tug-of-war at the gates of a potentially oppressive government.
And that’s an important thing to talk about, the ideological personification that this movie looks to achieve. There are a lot of characters, and they’ve all got things to say and do, but the heart of this movie is the conflict between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Heyman. Arguably the best scene in the film (arguably, there are a couple others that give it pretty steep contest) is when the built up anger and contempt between Abbie and Tom finally gives way, and they decide to voice their issues with each other. Tom makes some pretty salient points about Abbie’s approach to revolution, but only as salient as those that Abbie makes about Tom’s, and the mutual respect that comes from that disagreement is wonderful. In a lot of ways, that’s also the point of this movie. On the stand for conspiracy were four individual groups of people that had their own individual ideas about revolution and protest, each of whom practiced their ideas in their own ways. As much as anything else in this film, I was fascinated by the understated cage-match of progressive ideologies on display. If there was one point of ever-so-slight issue, it would actually be that, for no character, does it ever go deeper than the ideological level. This movie doesn’t have a Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, it doesn’t have a character that you get to understand the deeper gears of, because the ideological conversation takes precedence, maybe rightly so, over character depth. With such a large ensemble, and so many points of view to put across, the characters become mouthpieces for their ideas. That’s fine, it’s what this movie needed, but it’s a level of depth that I think a film like The Social Network had which this film didn’t. Hard to say if that makes it better or worse, the two films had very different purpose. I’ll put it in an update to this review once I’ve seen this movie 87 more times.
I think I’d be doing a disservice in not mentioning this film’s place in time. Never have I ever seen such a topical film. That they filmed this before the pandemic, before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is downright spooky. I mean it. How to protest and why we do it is a conversation long overdue, in America and the rest of the world, and the parallels to present day couldn’t be more poignant. There’s something familiar about Julius Hoffman and his brand of incompetency, something familiar about a spiteful government, and there’s definitely something familiar about how the protests turned, how the police behaved. Given the context, there’s a largeness to this film that’s hard to articulate. In interviews, Aaron Sorkin has described how this is a film about today, that takes place in 1968. If it’s not absolutely clear what that means, you need to watch this movie. If you’ve got an opinion about the innumerable protests we’ve been seeing, you need to watch this movie. Honestly, it goes beyond that. If you live in 2020, you really oughta be watching this movie. Boiled down, this is an incredible film, far and away the best of the year, and one of my new favourites of all time. I think. Like I said, just gonna have to watch it another 87 times to be sure.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 90/100