The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) – Review

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Palmer Rubin

No filmmaker has his head farther up his own ass than Aaron Sorkin, and sometimes that works in his favor. Sometimes a screenplay intended as a glowing hagiography can be put under the cold and calculating lens of David Fincher and become the masterpiece that is The Social Network. Sometimes it’s an overlong and mostly unfocused biopic of a poker dealer like in the case of Sorkin’s directorial debut, the tepid and lifeless Molly’s Game. Sorkin is well known for many things: an obsessive deference for the American civic religion, fast-paced witticisms and people walking down hallways for inordinate amounts of time for no reason. Sorkin could be seen as a more mainstream counterpart to Charlie Kaufman in the way that his tics and tendencies became visual shorthand before he became a director. Whereas Kaufman would make his directorial efforts into borderline abstractions in the best possible way, Sorkin hasn’t faired nearly as well.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 was originally intended to be a Steven Spielberg movie way back in the aughts, with the thing remaining in development hell so long that Sorkin was eventually able to take the director’s chair for himself. You can see why Spielberg would’ve loved this project in the way that he adapted The Post: both are Nixon-era films about how our democratic institutions can be threatened by corruption but are ultimately stronger than that… hopefully. I’d even go so far as to say that out of the dueling biopics about Nixon-era corruption from the last few years, this is absolutely the better of the two by sheer virtue of Sorkin crossing his own wires so much that the end result is nothing like the movie he clearly wanted it to be. I mean this as a compliment.

Sorkin is known for witty comebacks, but he’s not known for being an outright funny filmmaker. Sorkin only knows how to adapt white collar suits, folks who stand proudly with norms and traditions above all else. Whenever Sorkin is forced out of his comfort zone is when his unintentionally best work emerges. The Social Network might be about wealthy Harvard students getting wealthier, but they’re nerdy and disorganized and seething with resentment. So Sorkin trying to write his own version of the hippie movement and the Black Panther Party results in a film so thoroughly removed from the realities of both movements (especially the latter) that it accidentally becomes the funniest comedy of the year. Spielberg would take the material in a more lighthearted direction, but Sorkin insists on so much theatricality in the proceedings that it becomes an absolute laugh riot in parts.

To wit: during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the Chicago Police Department intentionally instigated a riot, arrested the leaders of the protest and injured countless more, then paraded the leaders into an obvious sham trial to make an example of them. These leaders, most of whom never even met until the trial itself, are played by a who’s who of character actors and comedians even as they’re forced through the intentional bureaucratic nightmare of a kangaroo court. Out of the assorted names, by far the two strongest of the Chicago 8 (yes, the movie’s title is inaccurate) is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale and Sacha Baron Cohen (of all people) as Youth International Party founder Abbie Hoffman. The rest are overall fine, though Jeremy Strong of Succession goes so comically overboard in self-seriousness as Jerry Rubin that he ends up sounding like a hippie equivalent of Zoolander. An invented subplot for the film features Jerry Rubin practically having a conniption upon discovering his new girlfriend was a FBI plant, and though it’s entirely made-up, it’s funnier than it has any right to be.

If anything highlights the crossed wires that face Sorkin over the course of this picture, it all rests on the shoulders of Bobby Seale. Sorkin re-creates a moment that actually did occur in the real case, where Seale is forcibly restrained and gagged in the courtroom in response to an errant comment he makes towards the white supremacist judge (played with seething jowl-shaking fury by Frank Langella, always ready to play a villain role with aplomb). The minute this happens, with the white cast members reacting in horror, Seale quite literally disappears from the film and is never seen again. A shame, because a film primarily from his perspective instead of a massive ensemble would be far more interesting given how even the film notes what a sham it was to connect the Black Panthers to a rally started by what is functionally today’s equivalent of the Young Turks or Chapo Trap House. What’s morbidly funny about the way Sorkin goes into this is that in actuality, the real Bobby Seale spent several full weeks bound and gagged in the courtroom as opposed to a few minutes, but that would make suggestions that Sorkin isn’t comfortable confronting about himself and his supposedly democratic institutions. Given that the film goes into how the prosecution actually sent sympathetic jurors death threats while pretending to be members of the Black Panther Party (and this actually happened), Sorkin still is not comfortable addressing the fundamental rot in an institution of law that can do such things and never face any repercussions. Constantly, the Chicago 8 say again and again that the second that dastardly Richard Nixon is gone, everything will be perfect again. See where I’m going with this?

That being said, the film has constant tonal shifts between these really tone-deaf attempts at using the only Black character’s pain to demonstrate the Inherent Goodness of the white ones and scenes of demonstration, which are a lot funnier than Sorkin intended. Sacha Baron Cohen is legitimately hysterical, and the real Abbie Hoffman was apparently the perfect role for him to play, given his own love of Borat-style pranks during his real-life activism work. Several minutes of reading about the actual case (to wit, I am not an expert) makes me really think that Sorkin should’ve gone full hog in portraying the various pranks that the real Hoffman and Jerry Rubin pulled, only a few of which actually appear in the film itself. It can be a bit disconcerting to cut from various scenes that play like a studio comedy (to be fair to Sorkin, this is the funniest he’s ever been as a screenwriter) and scenes which demonstrate the nature of a kangaroo court even as the lawyers and the Chicago 8 increasingly realize the entire thing is just political theater. Sorkin at least doesn’t try to deny this, and doesn’t deny that the police only exist as perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence and nothing more. Sorkin tries whenever he can to try and heavily suggest that the protests themselves should’ve never happened at all (the film’s climactic scene regards the Chicago 8 discovering that one of their number did, in fact, encourage protestors to fight back instead of letting themselves be beaten almost to their death by an army of government-sanctioned thugs), but the events of the real story are so conclusive that even he has to make some more progressive concessions than he might like.

The scenes of Langella and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the prosecutor, a sniveling and cowardly devotee of the cult of Richard Nixon that plays like Ben Shapiro transported through time to the 1960s, using legal jargon to run circles around the Chicago 8 and dragging out the trial as long as possible just to spite them into guilty pleas are when the film begins to hit its stride, where Sorkin has the gem of something better. There’s not enough of them, and not enough of the genuinely funny scenes that highlight the process of political theater as a sham, and how easily norms can be violated and twisted to suit those in power. Sorkin always feels like he’s two seconds away from coming to genuine revelations given the current state of things and then shies away. Richard Nixon is the only bad president in this world, only people working for Richard Nixon are bad, and that must be the way it is, so claims Sorkin.

Ultimately, the film’s current context can’t be more obvious even if this was filmed before the start of our pandemic and the current push for Black liberation in America, half a millennium later than it should. Sorkin is so unsubtle about who represents who that you can start taking shots in the dark: The judge is Donald Trump (or Bill Barr, given how the movie hinges on Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell doing many of the same things Droopy Dog is currently doing), the Chicago 8 and the people around them are mostly a group of progressives. Eddie Redmayne, TERF at Law is clearly the more centrist section of the populace, given that his character constantly whines about being respectable and playing by the rules and the vague platitudes Sorkin likes the most, even as Abbie Hoffman wins every argument with him handedly anyway. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, in spite of being the person responsible for their lives, is also posited as clearly feeling bad about participating in an inhumane kangaroo court, so thereby he fulfills the mythology of the “Good Republican” in the eyes of the Chuck Schumers of the world. He feels bad, yes, and that’s all that matters, even though he still repeatedly breaks the law and makes efforts to destroy innocent lives all for the political benefit of those he serves. But he feels bad!

I won’t say the final scene because of spoilers, but it is such a tonal misfire in every way, and ends the film on a freeze-frame and a series of titles like a 1980s sex comedy, that I have not laughed harder at any scene this year fundamentally misunderstanding the context that it’s trying to engage in. Sorkin intends for Eddie Redmayne to be the film’s protagonist (it’s unclear whether his character arc involves him being right about playing Boy Scout or being radicalized), and I’ll just say that the final interaction between him and Langella, which inevitably has Gordon-Levitt siding with Redmayne, is unintentional comedy gold. You’ll see what I mean. That scene in question, to my knowledge, never actually happened. Dear reader, I howled like a hyena. I’ll give you a hint: if you saw Starship Troopers, imagine that film without irony.

Anyway, if this is all a bit out there and uncoordinated, it’s because it’s a film that I enjoyed for certain parts and then was annoyed senselessly by for other parts. Sorkin badly wants the America he vaguely remembers to come back. He wants to imagine that by removing one man from power, the corruption will magically go away and he can go back to pretending like nothing is wrong. It is an innocently naive perspective, and almost wholesome in a way. But it’s definitely the best film that he’s ever directed by miles. I was never bored. But I would recommend not watching this alone or sober.

I give The Trial of the Chicago 7 a B-.