The Trial of the Chicago 7

Graphic by Robert Samec

#Vote and the Limits of Sorkinism

Drew Medway, PM, ’22

What does it mean to make art that is topical in our current political landscape?

You could take the straightforward approach, directly commenting upon current events through documentary (13th) or dramatic recreation (The Comey Rule). Alternatively, you can go the way of allegory. Some explore the historical record, constantly circular and often chillingly familiar, to craft a compelling statement on the present. Into this proud tradition steps a giant of entertainment: Aaron Sorkin.

1968 was an explosive year, bringing with it the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, as well as the worsening of the Vietnam War. Amidst the chaos, the Democratic Party prepared to nominate VP Humphrey at its convention in 1968. Humphrey faced widespread opposition from antiwar and leftist individuals, nearly 15,000 of whom flocked to protest the convention in Chicago. Democratic Mayor Richard Daley responded with overwhelming force, and the crowds found themselves facing “a tear-gas spraying, baton-wielding army” of 20,000+ law enforcement officers. Protests turned bloody. A year later the federal authorities pressed charges of conspiracy and incitement to riot against a motley crew of organizers drawn from different organizations. The trial was nakedly political and outrageously conducted. The sole Black defendant — Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, whose charges were eventually dropped — was bound and gagged in the courtroom. It was a national lightning rod for public opinion, and every day, huddled outside the building, protestors would chant deafeningly: “The whole world is watching!”

Aaron Sorkin started dreaming up The Trial of Chicago 7 over a decade ago. Its narrative of police violence, widespread protest, racial injustice and political corruption has only grown more relevant since. Indeed, mere weeks before the election, it could even be viewed as the perfect opportunity to put “Trump’s America on trial.” It was perfect Oscar fodder, and Chicago 7 thus built a storm of hype on the back of its relevance, stacked ensemble cast, and of course… Aaron Sorkin.

When Sorkin is good, he’s great. Over time, he’s crafted an oeuvre of razor-sharp scripts and sculpted an idiosyncratic brand of quippy, overlapping dialogue bellowed from the mouths of whip-smart characters. He’s often imitated, and rarely matched. This style, paired with a penchant for lofty speeches, theoretically makes Sorkin the perfect writer to pen a courtroom drama, a theory backed up by A Few Good Men.

So why is The Trial of the Chicago 7 mediocre?

While Sorkin is talented, he’s also Sorkin. His often effective style can sometimes come on too strong, revealing repetition ad nauseam and underlying problems. You notice the Sorkinisms; you question the male-dominance; you groan at the self-righteousness. At its worst, a Sorkinesque work feels like condescending entertainment for people with master’s degrees, delivering its quips and speeches with an overbearing smugness.

And then there’s Sorkin’s politics, an intellectual brand of principled idealism previously seen in The West Wing. In that fictional world, the highest values included civility, morality, and competence, competing partisans were depicted as honorable folk with differences of opinions, and hard work paid off. Appealing? Sure. The vision especially connected with the key demographic of high-income viewers. But, while The West Wing made for great TV, it proved untenable as a model of engaging with political reality, especially as the Bush Administration rolled into town. Similarly, three years of Trump don’t bode well for Sorkin’s principled idealism. Civility is a distant fantasy, morality is an after-thought, competence is dead in a ditch, and good faith has broken bad.

It is into a reality distinctly unlike the West Wing that Sorkin’s newest work is released.

The most frustrating aspect of Chicago 7 lies in its wasted potential, especially since some parts of it are quite good. The film proves most powerful when it focuses on racial injustice through the tale of Seale, due in large part to the stellar performance from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. His treatment by the court is outrageous, and outrage is something Chicago 7 does well: by the end, any viewer will want to slug the incompetent Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) in the face. There’s also other acting standouts (JEREMY STRONG!!!) and plenty of electrifying Sorkin dialogue to be found.

The problem is that Chicago 7 wastes skillful craft on a lame political statement. No matter how good the ensemble cast, how quippy the writing, or how timely the content, a film of this nature needs to be in service of something interesting. Here, it isn’t. In the name of dramatic convention and political inclination, Sorkin deviates from actual history. In the film, the court gags Bobby Seale a single time, during which he remains mostly silent. In reality, he was gagged for multiple days, struggling to speak and demanding representation through it all. Likewise, Sorkin tries to build a likable figure in the prosecution through Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an honorable lawyer trying to do his job, eventually even sympathizing with the defendants. In reality, the prosecution displayed no such sympathy and remained steadfast in doing their reprehensible duty.

And then there’s the ending. At one point in the actual trial, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) attempted to read the names of fallen U.S. troops from the Vietnam War into the record and was quickly stopped. However, in Chicago 7, Judge Hoffman chooses Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, the least troublesome defendant) to deliver brief closing remarks. Hayden starts to read off the names, causing the entire courtroom to stand in applause as the judge fails to gavel him down. Even Schultz stands, telling his boss it is “respect for the fallen.” It’s an aggressively corny ending that feels far too ham-fisted for a 90s courtroom drama.

So what does Chicago 7 have to say? 

Two scenes sum it up. First, a third-act interaction: Abby Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) asks Tom Hayden: “Winning elections is the first thing on your wishlist? Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress, they’re second?” Hayden replies: “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second.” It’s a message of #vote, smuggled into a groan-worthy arc of leftist infighting. Hayden, a clear Sorkin stand-in, delivers his message with an air of condescension to Hoffman and the viewers alike. Second, that damn ending. Together, their message becomes: If we put aside our differences, compromise, and #vote, we can triumph over the Hoffman-esque figure of Trump and restore a better world! Freeze frame, roll credits.

For a certain high-income, NPR-listening demographic, the ending might make them stand up and applaud as well. It’ll send them triumphantly to the polls, believing that with a simple vote and little more they’ll have done their job vis-a-vis equality, justice, education, poverty and progress. Hell, it might even bring back the “civility” of Schultz-esque republicans.

But… that’s all bullshit. Chicago 7 is an indictment of individuals, but not of the system they operate within. It thwarts Judge Hoffman, but it gives Schultz a neat little redemption arc. It can’t help but reduce injustice to a problem of bad actors (or bad apples), while maintaining that honorable people on both sides will eventually restore harmony. Of course that was decades ago, and the system is still in full effect — a system that granted Hoffman authority, a system that allowed law enforcement to turn protests to bloodshed, and a system that allowed the sole Black defendant to be gagged in the courtroom for multiple days. The systemic injustice that persists today makes it clearer than ever that the problem is not one of bad actors, but a bad system. A West Wing mentality isn’t going to cut it anymore, and it does the story of the Chicago 7 a disservice.

So go vote, but know that the work doesn’t stop there. And if you’re looking for a better timely movie starring Sacha Baron Cohen, try Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is now streaming on Amazon Prime

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