The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a film divided against itself. Much of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s work has been built on a foundational notion of the inherent dignity of institutions, an idea he has applied from the inner workings of the executive branch as he has the responsibilities of cable journalism. The openly political attempt to railroad a number of disconnected Vietnam protestors as a cabal of domestic terrorists who instigated the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, then, presents a challenge to Sorkin’s worldview, confronting his ideals with the blunt reality of the powers of state being openly and callously wielded for the purposes of crushing undesirables. As such, it makes for the most fascinating project to bear his name since his script for The Social Network another story in which the august institutions that forge our elites are revealed to be hotbeds of narcissism and sociopathy.

Sorkin’s television-sharpened skills for plotting serve him well in the rapid-fire introduction of the main characters. Cutting between various protest groups, Sorkin establishes the straight-laced, respectable SDS heads Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); disheveled yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); and lifelong pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Not only does the director manage to lay out the most significant characters, he cleverly illustrates the inherent absurdity of the government’s attempt to charge these men with conspiracy; one look at each of the distinct figures is enough to make it known that apart from a shared opposition to the war, these guys wouldn’t be able to hold a relatable conversation with each other, much less coordinate an act of terrorism. The transparent farce of the subsequent trial is made all the more evident when these separate leaders are tried together with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), two activists who look downright confused to be in court. More egregiously, the Chicago Seven are originally an octet thanks to the absurd inclusion of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), head of the Black Panthers, who was only in Chicago the day of the riots for four hours and has clearly been added to the case to further cast the defendants as scary menaces to society.

The first, and best, stretch of the film ably juggles Sorkin’s twin loves of demonstrative courtroom drama and antic screwball witticisms. From the outset, the trial devolves into nonsense, certainly from the defendants, among whom Rubin and especially Hoffman prove to be consistently sardonic and disruptive. Cohen, himself no stranger to the notion of pranksterism as a form of cultural protest, clearly understands Hoffman’s entire outlook on cultural revolution rooted in liberating irony, and he shines throughout as Hoffman uses the court as a captive audience for his riffs. Yet he is not the most disruptive man in the room; he’s not even the most chaotic Hoffman. That would be the judge, Julius Hoffman, whom Frank Langella plays as a parodic repository of reactionary partisanship. The real judge presided over the case so poorly and with such obvious biases that he was lampooned even at the time (Jean-Luc Godard depicted him as just short of a literal Nazi, screaming gibberish and incessantly banging a gavel in Vladimir and Rosa), and Langella emphasizes the flared nostrils and bulging eyes of disgust when a defendant dares to speak up, especially Seale, whose protests over his lack of legal representation owing to his lawyer’s emergency surgery prompt furious dismissal from the bench.

The film is more than willing to acknowledge the unmistakable corruption of the trial. Sorkin cuts between images of cops’ testimony and scenes of their actual behavior the day of the riots that shows how shamelessly they lie, while the judge’s indiscretion gets so out of control that he begins to capriciously strike every bit of evidence and testimony that might exonerate the defendants from the record. But the film hits a wall when Sorkin’s natural inclination toward believing in the best of civil government rears its head in the form of Richard Schultz (Joseph Godron-Levitt), the prosecuting attorney. Schultz is personally given the case by John Mitchell (John Doman), Nixon’s attorney general and one of the most spectacular casualties of Watergate, only to immediately blanch that the man wants to charge them with violations of the Rap Brown Law, which this straight-laced, conservative district attorney replies is racist. In court, he becomes so appalled by the legal (and, eventually, physical) brutality inflicted upon Seale that he pressures the judge to cut him loose from the defendants, and even though the defense points out he’s doing so because Seale has been turned into a martyr, the film leads with Schultz’s nonpartisan morality.

This mitigated view of the nobility that could be wrung from attempting to steamroll some disconnected lefties prefigures a larger second-half shift to the internal dynamics among the Chicago Seven and a fierce debate between Hayden’s notion of pragmatic, electorally driven protest and the hippie culture espoused by Hoffman. It’s no secret on which side of the line Sorkin falls as Hayden tears into Hoffman for making gestures like unruly hair and giving flowers to soldiers the image of progressivism over “ideas,” though Hayden’s ideas are never really on display. Instead, the man becomes an empty signifier of working within the system to change it, a stance Sorkin continues to uncritically peddle as the nation has slipped decades backward over the years he’s been selling it.

All of this culminates in a final act that indulges the worst of Sorkin, much of it located in an appalling monologue in which Abbie Hoffman stands up for the institutions of American decency and blames the entire situation on bad apples manipulating otherwise good mechanisms of power. Sorkin, after laying bare how the system is designed to suppress dissent and protest with punishment, flinches at the conclusions gleaned from that honesty, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 ultimately retreats into his fantasy land, where the villains are so broad they can be seen from space and a final act of protest that is respectful yet full of conviction can so move the court that even the prosecution must acknowledge its power.

Aaron Sorkin’s retelling of a politically charged event is undone by sentimentality and rose-tinted optimism.
40 %
Misty-eyed treacle
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