The Trial of the Chicago 7
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Streaming on Netflix
When I wrote about Molly's Game I mentioned that an Aaron Sorkin screenplay is so much more than its elevator pitch. Social Network isn't a Facebook movie. Molly's Game isn't a poker movie. Moneyball is more than a baseball movie. Steve Jobs isn't an Apple movie. A Few Good Men is more than courtroom drama. And The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more than a movie celebrating a piece of Boomer history.
It's a movie about how far people will go when they feel their grip on authority and power slipping away. It's about unlikely allies and unlikely friends. About the class structure in a culture that sees itself as classless. About how the colour of your skin can result in the fundamental rights that every citizen takes for granted can be taken away by the sound of a gavel hitting wood. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a testament to how far America progressed in the years after the 1968 election. But it's also a indictment of how far America has regressed. Like other Sorkin work, he uses the facts as a base, as a foundation, before finding a fiction that fits his thesis of the emotional reality of the event. Like Social Network, Molly's Game, Steve Jobs, and Moneyball before it, The Trial of the Chicago 7 isn't a document of the truth. Don't look to this movie when write your essay about this moment in history. Do look to this movie as great art inspired by a moment in history.
Chicago 7 begins with an excellent shorthand to place the viewer in the time period, a quick primer of the events of 1968 using newscasts and footage and photographs of the era, ending with Walter Cronkite calling Chicago a "police state" as the Democratic National Convention prepared to begin. After that prologue, Mr. Sorkin shows again how much he has learned working with some of the finest directors of the last 40 years. He trusts the dialogue and the performances to do most of the heavy lifting, to bring the tension, the roller coaster of emotions. I mean, most of the film is set in a courtroom, 8 defendants and 2 defense attorneys sitting at an L-shaped table. But he interrupts the courtroom proceedings with Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman talking to a college audience, a kind of Lenny Bruce routine about the events leading up to the night of August 28, 1968 while also commenting on the trial. At times, these moments with Hoffman serve as colour commentary, as an editorial aside, as we cut from trial testimony to the college crowd. And it is brilliant.
The movie swings for huge moments, when it seems that the soul at the heart of the American experiment is about to be lost, and then narrows it down to a small moment. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) arguing tactics and strategy with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) gently pushing their buttons, some of the other defendants acting as a Greek Chorus. Or Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) asking Tom Hayden if his motivation is rebelling against his father and pointing out that "is a long way from a rope in a tree". But then that is one those magic tricks we've come to expect from Mr. Sorkin. Those larger than life moments punctuated by real, honest, human emotions. The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers these moments and then some.
And when the moments may seem cheap on the page, the actors take them and make them honest and real and moving. When David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) breaks his pacifist vow and looks over to his son watching and mouths "sorry", with any other actor that moment would be cheap and manipulative. With John Carroll Lynch, the moment becomes heartbreakingly real. All of the performances in Chicago 7 are top shelf. Every single one of them. This is one of the great ensemble casts of, well, ever. I can't point to one and say "there's your Oscar winner right there". The IMDB page for this movie is kind of ridiculous. Many generations of some of the greatest character actors have come together to work with a writer that gets compared to Shakespeare. And that's not hyperbole, I swear. Okay. Maybe a little. But not much.
So, yeah. I enjoyed the heck out of The Trial of the Chicago 7. I keep blathering on about it being filled with real, honest human emotion but I keep forgetting to mention how damn funny it can be. Like, laugh out loud funny. And it can be infuriating. It really gets under your skin and you really do begin to detest the people who would put other people on trial for their thoughts. That's not part of the social contract that binds our modern democracies together and to do so, well, it should make us angry.