Matthew at the Movies: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes one of the most fascinating events birthed from the 1960s’ counter-culture movement and twists and distorts it into something that the movement was fighting against.

The film, released on Netflix on October 16th of last year, is about the trial that followed the peaceful-turned-violent protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The organizers of the protest, as well as a few others, were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot, and the trial that followed challenged the very foundation of this nation.

Sorkin, mainly known for writing critically-acclaimed films and TV, like The Social Network (2010) and The West Wing (1999-2006), goes for his second-jab at writer/director, his first was Molly’s Game (2017), and he flatlines.

Sorkin’s style of writing primarily consists of rapid, overlapping dialogue and unnaturally smart quips, and somehow, people are swept up by it all and enjoy it. At first, the dialogue seems natural, people talk over each other all the time, but Sorkin’s dialogue and characters are little too perfect. They always have a comeback or an insult. It doesn’t feel natural. People stutter and falter, but rarely do they in Sorkin’s world. It doesn’t work for me. It insists upon reality while failing to recreate said reality; it insists its own genius and relevancy, particularly in the case with this film, and it only works 1/3 of the time.

In terms of representing the actual trial and history, he, again, flatlines. Sorkin takes the fascinating political trial of the Chicago 8 (7, if you don’t count Bobby Seale) and infuses the characters with his own Neo-liberal and centrist politics. What really gets me is his twisting of Abbie Hoffman, one of the people put on trial.

Here’s a real quote from Abbie Hoffman: “You are talking to a leftist. I believe in the redistribution of wealth and power in the world. I believe in universal hospital care for everyone. I believe that we should not have a single homeless person in the richest country in the world. And I believe that we should not have a CIA that goes around overwhelming governments and assassinating political leaders, working for tight oligarchies around the world to protect the tight oligarchy here at home.”

Here’a a quote from the film Abbie Hoffman: “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.”

Sorkin, himself, admitted to having a hard time relating to Hoffman. And so, Sorkin changes the radical and funny anarcho-socialist/Groucho-marxist and turns him into something that Sorkin can align himself with: a kind-of funny, kind-of radical guy that is fine with the institution and really just wants to pick the bad apples off the tree. It’s just terrible, and to someone who subscribes with what Hoffman is saying, it’s insulting. I could go on and on on how the film betrays the ideals of the people represented, but this review is long enough. (Here’s a great article that goes into more detail on how the film gets Hoffman and the other defendants wrong – Link Here)

This has to be one of the most boring and stale looking courtroom-dramas I’ve ever seen. Sorkin, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, don’t do anything interesting or inventive; they only copy what came before. They interlope real-life footage of the protests and conflicts with reproduced staging of the same protests and conflicts, which is done in most documentaries and movies of this nature. The constant shot-reverse-shot of the courtroom scenes get tiring after ten minutes.

Thankfully, Sorkin’s direction of the actors fairs better than his direction of the camera, but not by much. I really only enjoyed five performances in the film: the very funny and witty Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, the equally as funny Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin (who didn’t have enough spotlight), the delightful John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the fantastic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, and a brief but welcomed cameo from Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark.

Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, is given a few moments to shine, mainly during the confrontations between him and Hoffman (which I’ll get to later), but that’s where his potential plateaus. Mary Rylance plays William Kunstler, the lawyer representing the Chicago 7 (minus Seale), and he’s fine. He yells. He talks. There’s nothing that memorable about his performance, and I can say the same for everyone else.

For a film about protests against the Vietnam war, it rarely ever mentions it. That’s not to say it doesn’t, there are little moments throughout the film that mention it, but those are mainly about the loss of American lives rather than the massive loss of Vietnamese lives, which is the opposite of what the real protestors did. And for a film supposedly “for the troops” rarely does it ever bring them up other than the fact that they’re dead. We never truly grasp what these people were fighting for and only those familiar to the history of the events will know. Similar to Sorkin, the protestors seem only focused on themselves then what’s happening to others, which is the complete opposite of the truth.

The real conflict in the film, as I mentioned earlier, is between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden. Hayden wants to sit silently and play-along with the judge’s rulings so they can get out of court faster and protest sooner while Hoffman wants to constantly display their message of protest and interrupt the trial as much as they can to spread the word. They both want the same thing (ending the war, racial equality, economic equality) but their methods of doing so are different. It’s more about left-infighting than anything else, which it represents well enough, but the real issues at hand (the Vietnam War, police brutality) are rarely talked about.

The film looses focus of what the trial was about (the suppression of radical change against the intrinsic systemic oppression) and instead cleans it up and affirms Sorkin’s preexisting Neo-liberal idealism. What’s funny is that I didn’t mind this film at first, I gave it a 2.5/5. “It’s not great but not too terrible either.” And the more I think about it, the less I like it.

There is an argument to be had that films that depict real-life events should, as much as possible, accurately represent the events depicted. But I believe in artistic integrity, however, one should at least try and represent, fundamentally, what the depicted event was all about, and Sorkin fails at doing so.

The film ends at the final day of the trial, February 20th 1969, with Tom Hayden, representing all seven defendants at the trial, giving a final, combined defense statement, and he reads the names of all the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam that died during the lengthy process of the trial. In reality, the event happened a year earlier with David Dellinger listing the names of the fallen U.S. soldiers, but he also read the names of the fallen Vietnamese. And that’s not the end of it, not just one defendant spoke for the others, they were all given time to speak, so here’s what Tom really said,

“We have known all along what the intent of the Government has been. We knew that before we set foot in the streets of Chicago. We knew that before we set foot on the streets of Chicago. We knew that before the famous events of August 28, 1968. If those events didn’t happen, the Government would have had to invent them as I think it did for much of its evidence in this case, but because they were bound to put us away. They have failed. Oh, they are going to get rid of us, but they made us in the first place. We would hardly be notorious characters if they had left us alone in the streets of Chicago last year, but instead we became the architects, the masterminds, and the geniuses of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. We were invented. We were chosen by the Government to serve as scape goats for all that they wanted to prevent happening in the 1970s.”

Sorkin, much like the Government Tom spoke about, picked this story about these brave figures of the revolution and invented false approximations of them and made them his puppets and marionettes for his own ideals. I highly recommend reading the final statements from all the defendants, you’ll get a much clearer and more truthful idea of what these people were fighting for than this poor excuse of a film. (1.5/5)

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