Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is now streaming on Netflix, has the benefit of good timing. The movie, as is clear from its title, is taking on the notorious legal battle waged against the so-called “Chicago Seven,” a disjointed crew of anti-Vietnam War activists and counterculturalists who were charged with, among other things, inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was obviously quite a year, ’68: MLK and Bobby Kennedy dead, youth and minority movements rip-roaring their way into the American consciousness, more than 100 uprisings breaking out across the country — all of which we now, with the benefit of historical distance, sum up as “civil unrest.”
But that term is too neat to contain even this bullet-point summary, let alone the actual mess of sentiment and conflict defining of the era. And the jagged ideological murkiness of that moment — the transition into the Nixon era, and what it would mean for reining in the hog-wild social politics of the Sixties — is part of what Sorkin wants us to remember here. He also, in pure Sorkin fashion, wants us to remember that true-blue ideology, an unwavering inner compass that points North toward righteousness, can be powerful enough to trump anything so simple or categorical as one’s political affiliation or professional obligation.
And so, early on, without even needing yet to reenact the DNC uprising in itself, writer-director Sorkin lays his cards on the table. All it takes is a quick interaction between Richard Nixon’s newly-minted attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) and the young, upstanding prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to make the case. Mitchell wants — Nixon wants — to close the Sixties with a row of heads on pikes. What better heads than those of Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, or countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman, or Bobby Seale, national chairman of public enemy Number One, the Black Panther Party? Mitchell wants to charge these men and others with more than trespassing and destruction of property: He wants to charge them, under federal law, with conspiracy to incite riots across state lines. He wants, he says, “to bring back manners, how about that? The America I grew up in.” Make America Polite Again.
Schultz, a charismatic conformist who’s no fan of the men in question, doesn’t think they have a case. He’s the one who points out that the Rap Brown Law with which Mitchell hopes to score this win was explicitly designed to limit the free speech of black civil rights activists. He’s the one who points out that these men don’t really have anything to do with each other, and who, accordingly, sees the risk of making them martyrs: You’re only wedding their disparate bases together into one unified, antigovernment cause. He’s also the one who asks: “Who started the riots? Was it the protestors, or the police?” To which Mitchell, who’s called this motley crew of enemies everything from schoolboys to fairies to “rebels without a job,” replies: “The police don’t start riots.”
With this, The Trial of the Chicago 7 announces its contemporary political relevance — as distinct from any actual urgency — while in the same moment signaling the irredeemable awkwardness to come. The fate of public protest against war and other abuses of power, defining of the era, would seem to hang in the balance here. But Sorkin’s movie is, well, a Sorkin movie — meaning that whatever urgency it has, whatever lessons it hopes to impose on us, much of its power is lost in the mannerisms of its maker. And the slipshod application of those mannerisms to this subject is also clear early on, when a title onscreen tells us we’re looking at Bobby Seale, but the words coming out of the mouth of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Seale, are as jarringly loquacious and gratingly actor-playing-an-Ivy-Leaguer as any number of annoyingly similar archetypes played by white actors in Sorkin’s other, better (with some exceptions) projects. Someone starts a sentence with “Dr. King—” and Seale expounds: “Is dead. He has a dream? Well now he has a fucking bullet in his head. Martin’s dead, Malcolm’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully? We gon’ try something else.”
As written and directed by Sorkin, Seale’s character rattles these tragedies off, less with a sense of political fury than with the cloyingly clever speed and posturing familiar to Sorkinese. I agree with that last sentiment. though: Let’s try something else. Something a bit less goofy, a bit less akin to three kids in a trench coat pretending to be a movie. The problem isn’t that Sorkin’s writing isn’t realistic, nor that Trial isn’t historically accurate enough: The liberties an artist takes with history can often reflect thrillingly on that history. But The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels outright outlandish at times; more than unrealistic, it can feel as far afield from history as an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s brash and mock-stylish and high on the fumes of its own flaws — again, something it signals early on, with a parade of badly-written scenes, scored to badly written and tonally disconcerting music, that introduces us to the story’s major players. Someone who hates jazz but doesn’t know this about themselves might liken this segment to “jazz” because of its seeming virtuosity, its unpredictable rhythm, its clash of tones and intentions.
Really, it’s just bad filmmaking. And the irony of Sorkin is that his best work is often his “worst”: When he leans toward trash and away from importance, as in Molly’s Game and A Few Good Men, he can be fun, titillating — no less ridiculous than usual, but pleasurably willing to cede his Big Ideas to that ridiculousness, willing to sustain that pleasure without pretending there are real virtues, real ideas, humming beneath the hood.
It’s when he dips straight ahead into history and politics that the pleasure of his trash begins to expose his limits, like Truman, of The Truman Show, reaching the horizon and realizing it’s a wall. Sorkin, still rare for being a writer-auteur in an era that defines movies by their actors and directors (if not their IP), has a style, and that style comes to bear on the strange costume-party approach to history he takes here. Boomer idealism and talky grandstanding abound, as expected. A large, star-laden cast ranging from Sacha Baron Cohen (Hoffman) to Eddie Redmayne (Hayden), Frank Langella (as judge Julius Hoffman, no relation), Mark Rylance (as defense attorney William Kunstler), and Michael Keaton (as Mitchell’s predecessor under LBJ, Ramsey Clark) walks and talks us through heady mouthfuls of ideas that only gain any modicum of nuance when positioned in stark, broadly contrary terms. This is a courtroom drama, of course. But even when we’re not in court, political ideals, social behaviors, the backbone of progressive politics — all of it is taken to court.
The advantage: Sorkin has long been skilled at making interrogation fun to watch, full of comeuppance and a passion for values, for lies that get exposed as such and injustices that are, in being similarly exposed, easy for most of us to rally around. Granted, history has already done a lot of the work, here. The legal conflict at the movie’s heart is inherently interesting, and legitimately relevant: As recently as this year, William Barr has tried to revive the Rap Brown law to suppress protests over the death of George Floyd. To say nothing of the personalities: Abbie Hoffman, a role appropriately filled by a comedian but underwhelmingly performed by Cohen, is the kind of wrench in the veneer of politesse that a movie like this, full of one-liner Sorkinisms, thrives on. This was the trial, you may remember, at which Allen Ginsberg sounded the Hindu chant “Om” from the witness stand. Like the era that it defines, this trial is a rich text.
The case is plainly ridiculous, a clear imposition on free speech, which is why history would eventually vindicate these men. But by the end of the movie, what we really have are A Few Good Lines, a couple of nice turns from actors we like (the extended cast includes John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Ben Shenkman, and the young and worth-watching Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a script that holds water until you really give it some thought, and a fresh entry for everyone’s regularly-scheduled Sorkin rankings. It will probably get Oscar nominations; it may even have done so in a year where a pandemic didn’t wipe out much of the competition. But in a world in which actual, vital, uncompromising political art exists, even in comedic form, even with movie stars and enviable budgets, do we need to treat a movie like this — so dull, so intellectually dusty, with such bad wigs — like more than the bloated cup of soft-serve with extra fixins that it is? Thankfully, given those other movies, we do not.