There’s a scene toward the end of Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of the 1969 trial of the Chicago 7, aptly titled The Trial of the Chicago 7, where political activist, unapologetic spitfire and constitutional jester Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) is called to give testimony over the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. To summarize: The occasion ended in riots, and Hoffman is one of several others—Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and fall guys Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty)—accused of inciting the chaos. When asked whether he has contempt for his government, Abbie replies that “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.”
His words make up the perfect distillation of Sorkin’s aesthetic, being both a poetically written, powerfully spoken slice of dialogue as well as an eye-rolling fabrication. Hoffman never said anything of the sort, and he never would have because he was an anarchist, not an institutionalist. So when the character speaks in Baron Cohen’s remarkably well-affected Worcester accent, he’s speaking Sorkin’s language rather than Hoffman’s. The conflict between what happened and how authors interpret what happened is a factor in biopics of any sort. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a reminder of that conflict and a lesson in how easily writers can muddy truth and upend suspension of disbelief by doing so: The Hoffman speech works, but on examination in concert with the record, its effect withers.
But the full-Sorkin grandstanding and speechifying at play in the film is so good and so clearly demonstrates his strengths as a writer and filmmaker that fuzzing up the truth doesn’t meaningfully stymie the viewing experience. In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 may be his sharpest, most well-made movie yet, an ensemble picture where the focus is on courtroom sparring matches, demonstration reenactments and a sprinkling of archival footage, as well as a predictable game of connect-the-dots between America 51 years ago and America today. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with saying the quiet part out loud in this case, given that the dialect and tactics and tyranny of the group representing the country’s right wing—government attorneys, cops, and judges—are so similar to the dialect and tactics and tyranny of the country’s contemporary right wing.
Sorkin’s message is bluntly put: Whether in 2020 or 1969, authoritarianism looks, sounds and acts the same. At least in The Trial of the Chicago 7, they’re represented by appealing actors, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Federal prosecutor-with-a-conscience Robin Schultz. The real Schultz was 10 times more of an asshole in real life than Sorkin writes him and Gordon-Levitt plays him. In the film, he moves to have the judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), declare a mistrial for Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) out of sympathy for cruel and unusual treatment. (Judge Hoffman has him bound, gagged and chained in court where everyone can look at him.) In history, Defense Counsel Bill Kunstler (Mark Rylance) made this request and Schultz mocked him for it. Casting Gordon-Levitt works in large part because of his boyish good looks and knack for projecting decency even when playing indecent men. In another legal thriller, he might turn out to be the hero.
In The Trial of the Chicago 7, he’s an agent of the system and Sorkin’s coded wish fulfillment character, because wouldn’t it be nice if the guys on the other team played by the same rules as the rest of us? This, too, cuts to the strength and weakness of Sorkin handling of his material: He reimagines the trial as gentler and even more respectable than it actually was, and the effect of the lie is like a warm blanket on a cold night. Abbie Hoffman’s pranks and antics are toned down. Judge Hoffman’s fetish for Mies van der Rohe is never brought up. Schultz is less of a prick. Even Kunstler, played with next-level beleaguered mastery by Rylance in the film’s best performance, isn’t as much of a showman. Ultimately, the elision of the whole truth is an acceptable casualty of Sorkin’s dramatism.
Among those casualties is Seale, the most innocent and most wrongfully treated person on the stand: As written he’s an object acted upon instead of a human being. Maybe one day Sorkin will produce a spin-off film to honor him, and maybe in that film Abdul-Mateen II will be given floor space for his movie star caliber talents. For now, The Trial of the Chicago 7 sees Sorkin in admirable form, commanding an enormous cast and an enormous narrative with precision. By sanding history’s edges, he turns the story into straightforward crowd-pleasing entertainment for a moment where straightforward crowd-pleasing entertainment about social justice and systemic malfeasance is needed.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeremy Strong, Michael Keaton, Alex Sharp, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, Ben Shenkman, John Doman, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Release Date: October 16, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.