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‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Is Peak Aaron Sorkin

All that we love and hate about the renowned screenwriter is here: high-calorie dialogue, hyperarticulate protagonists, cloudy history, and sentimental politics

Netflix/Ringer illustration

History is written by the winners, and Aaron Sorkin’s trophy case is pretty crowded. Between The Social Network and The West Wing, he’s halfway to an EGOT, and if the Pulitzer Prize ever creates a category specifically for Best Monologue By a Charming Sociopath, the speeches by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and Alec Baldwin in Malice will be retrospective victors. Nobody is better—or more prolific—at creating characters who enjoy hearing the sound of their own voice.

In the past decade, Sorkin has cornered the market on screenplays restaging pivotal episodes in contemporary American life and culture. The basic formula of The Social Network, which depicts its particular hinge moment as a series of skirmishes between hyperarticulate antagonists, was used similarly in Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, glossy, talky dramas about flawed, articulate men trying to live up to their own noble principles. Sometimes, as in Moneyball, the results are sublime; sometimes, as on The Newsroom, they prompt internet lists ranking the embedded level of cringe. It’s a weird thing for an artist to be simultaneously uneven and consistent, but Sorkin fits the bill: Whether his work is good or bad, it’s always recognizably his.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the Sorkin-iest movie imaginable, a relentless roundelay of impassioned speeches and snide one-liners seen through 20/20 hindsight. Its subject is the sensational 1969 courtroom case that pitted an ideologically diverse cross-section of American leftists against government-appointed prosecutors determined to blame them for the violence that spilled out of the previous year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the resulting mix of convictions and acquittals was less of a story than the trial itself, which was replete with grandstanding and showboating on both sides and featured flagrant abuse of power by the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (impersonated with Oscar-baiting aplomb by Frank Langella). As its title suggests, the film is an ensemble piece, and while in truth only five of the eponymous septet are significant players in the film, that still leaves plenty of opportunity for a cast of voracious scenery chewers to chow down on Sorkin’s high-calorie dialogue.

In a swiftly edited opening sequence designed for expositional heavy lifting, we’re introduced to a gallery of rabble-rousers heading to Chicago with specific, ideologically adjacent agendas and disparate factions of followers. There’s sardonic Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the stoned Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), who perform a wacky double act as the cofounders of the so-called “Yippies”; stoic Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), a dashing organizer paired with studious fellow socialist Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); and staid David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a literal Boy Scout. Each of these real-life figures will eventually get their equivalent of a solo in Sorkin’s choral melodrama, but it’s telling that the character at the precise center of the film—its main point of identification, if not its hero—is the lawyer making the case against this motley crew: Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), presented as (say it with me) a Flawed, Articulate Man (™) trying to live up to principles that keep growing ignobler by the day.

It’s futile to litigate a movie like The Trial of the Chicago 7 on charges of authenticity and render a guilty verdict. As he did in The Social Network—a great movie driven by a superb screenplay that plays fast and loose with facts—Sorkin is taking historical and poetic license with the material. This is his right; he’s not a documentarian, nor does he pretend to be. But given how outrageous and unbelievable the actual trial was, Sorkin’s need to invent additional show-stopping incidents suggests a lack of trust in his material, and also maybe his audience. It’s as if he’s worried that we can’t quite handle the truth.

The most ostentatious example of Sorkin’s revisionism lies in his even-handed treatment of Schultz, who was, by most accounts, a governmental attack dog with no compunction about denouncing the defendants. Sorkin recently restaged To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, and Gordon-Levitt’s performance treads close to Atticus Finch territory. In scene after scene, the young attorney is shown developing a mounting—and by the end, barely suppressed—sympathy for the men he’s trying to put in jail for crimes against the state. It’s a shift that seems meant as a sop to conservative viewers who might otherwise feel alienated by Chicago 7’s political slant.

Genuinely bipartisan political filmmaking is challenging, and the tendency of directors dramatizing activism to preach to the choir is older than the subject matter: In 1969’s superlative Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler used footage of the chaos of the DNC to take shots at the Nixon administration. Sorkin’s liberal bona fides are evident, but as a political commentator, he can seem like a dweeb. His recent comments on how he would script election night in November—with Trump’s Republican enablers telling the president “it’s time to go”—speak to the same upstanding fantasies churned out weekly on The West Wing. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is obviously meant as a show of solidarity with progressive moments past and present, but Sorkin isn’t all that comfortable with the revolutionary rhetoric of the more extreme figures here. He thus sentimentalizes the group’s headline-grabbing lawyer, William Kunstler; Mark Rylance is a brilliant actor, and it’s a missed opportunity to have him play a genuine radical as a soft-hearted rascal.

The most flamboyant performance is given by Cohen, who correctly impersonates Hoffman as a quick-witted improviser who takes pride in his lack of a filter. Inhabiting a practical joker is an easy assignment for a master of disguise, but Cohen aces it anyway, nailing the smarmy gravitas of a man who claimed he would psychically levitate the Pentagon. There’s also considerable amusement in Strong’s interpretation of Rubin, whose diminutive stature and slacker affect belied his ingenuity as a proponent of live-wire “guerilla theater.” (Given Rubin’s late-career transformation into a Wall Street wolf, he’d probably have gone hard for “L to the O.G.”) He’s definitely more entertaining than Redmayne’s straitlaced Hayden, who fears that acting out in front of the judge—and the television cameras—will undermine their mutual antiwar cause. As usual, whenever Redmayne is trying to be serious, he ends up sounding like he’s auditioning to play Mighty Mouse.

There’s another major figure here: Black Panthers cofounder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was in Chicago on business during the DNC and subsequently railroaded into the defense box in a craven attempt by Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell to link his organization to the riots. Abdul-Mateen is a fine, concentrated actor, and he gives Seale exactly the right mixture of pride, irritation, and incredulousness at being denied representation (his lawyer fell ill over the course of the trial) and being forced to stand trial as a symbol. The irony is that while Seale had no real connection to the Chicago 7—or their actions—he ended up linked to them for all time when Judge Hoffman ordered him bound and gagged in the courtroom for insubordination—a stranger-than-fiction moment that became an instant metaphor for entrenched, systemic American authoritarianism and racism.

The scene in which Seale is manhandled and restrained is the film’s most powerful moment, and yet even though Sorkin hews close to the record in having the character exit the film shortly thereafter—the result of a mistrial instigated (again, ahistorically) by a horrified Schultz—there’s also a strange feeling of relief. It’s as if after placing his tragic, defiant African American character on display so that we can shake our heads at his treatment, the director is free to return to the seriocomic bickering between movie stars that is his specialty. While The Trial of the Chicago 7 may not be an all-time offender in the field of movies that mobilize Black suffering to trouble the consciences of white characters, it edges close to that territory.

Throughout The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin is determined to flatter his audience by drawing can’t-miss-em parallels between the late ’60s and the present tense, like a close-up of a riot cop removing his I.D. patch before brutalizing a group of protestors, or bits of risible symbolism like a dissident being thrown through the window of a fancy restaurant. These touches are effective, but they’re also thuddingly obvious in a way that’s distinct from the actual Chicago 7’s razor’s-edge showmanship. Sorkin wants to honor the legacies of men who met the establishment with middle fingers upraised, but he can’t get over his own need for hand-holding. This extends to his hopelessly conventional directorial style, which is big on for-your-consideration close-ups and uses swelling music to underscore big emotional moments (the tell-tale sign of a filmmaker who doesn’t trust his dramaturgy on its own terms).

Choosing to re-tell a story encompassing themes of civil disobedience, free speech, racism, police brutality, and the splintering solidarity of the left in 2020 is a shrewd move. But there’s a fine line between topicality and self-aggrandizing opportunism, and for all of the talent on display, The Trial of the Chicago 7 stumbles along it with two left feet.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.