The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Say the words “Aaron Sorkin” and “courtroom drama” and “new” to me, and you have a recipe for seeing an excited movie fan. A Few Good Men remains one of my favourite films ever, a movie that captured exactly the drama that can take place within the walls of the justice system, aided in the effort by one of the best scripts of the modern era, and I mean that sincerely. Sorkin has done a lot since then, good and bad, but there was no way I was going to ever have anything less than high expectations for The Trial Of The Chicago 7, hereafter shortened to The Trial…
But more than any of that, this seemed like a good basis for a story to tell, here in late October 2020. The United States of America is currently undergoing a crisis of varied hues, but among the most important is a popular protest movement that has seen enough, whether it is the blatant discrimination against minorities, the continued denial of protection from sexual harassment and violence for women or the disgraceful politics of the Republican Party. Looking back to the events of 1968, a time when so many commentators have said that they feared the United States was close to fragmenting, is certainly apropos right now. Sorkin thus had a big responsibility: to meet expectations, tell a story that does justice to the men being portrayed, and that can also serve as a rallying cry for those on the streets today. Did The Trial… pull that off, or is Sorkin too far gone into a certain kind of career nadir?
In the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, eight men are put on trial by the Nixon-controlled state for a conspiracy to cause violence at the event: they include Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) of the Students for a Democratic Society; Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party; nonviolent activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Defended by civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), prosecuted by up-and-coming Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and facing the prejudicial rulings of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the eight battle internal divisions and external discrimination in a bid to win their freedom and a harsher spotlight on the ongoing Vietnam War.
The Trial… is very much a mixed bag. It is certainly not up to the level of Sorkin’s best effors, and it is not a patch on A Few Good Men. I’ll get into why exactly below, but there are many reasons to recommend The Trial… at the same time, not least its blatantly obvious resonance with the modern-day situation in America. In essence, The Trial… is a film that I think fails in terms of being an entertaining depiction of a judicial crisis, but which succeeds as allusion and as a thematic piece. Finding the balance between those two things would appear to be the tricky part.
Let’s go to the first point. The Trial… lacks the zip of A Few Good Men, that sense of purpose, of sublime script flow, that so marked that film out as one of the most quotable of the 90s (and I don’t just mean “You can’t handle the truth!”). I think this comes down to the film’s general aimlessness in some ways, a practically inevitable state of affairs when one takes a look at that plot description above. A Few Good Men was about two Marines accused of murder, the man trying to defend them and a possible cover-up of the crime. The Trial… is about four distinct individuals/groups being accused of a crime, and undergoing a politically motivated trial, with its own little sub-dramas involving prosecuting attorneys, defence attorneys and an extraordinarily biased judge. Mix in significant flashback sections, the defendants all being at odds with each other in different ways and an historical basis that does not easily conform to narrative necessity, and you have yourself a recipe for a mess.
So there’s Tom Hayden, conflicted between his disrespect for the larger system and his respect for the court; the Yippies caught between a deadly serious inner motivation and an outward show of comical contempt for authority; the conscientious objector seeing everything that he stands for challenged; the Black Panther whose treatment turns the entire affair into a major point in racial history in America, and who disappears from the film at the half-way point, and all of the lawyers and judges as well. There’s no clear protagonist, with Hayden fitting the bill the most; none of the cast, though excellently curated, are able to really grab the spotlight properly, with Cohen perhaps getting the best of his lot, capturing very well the inherent abnormality of Abbie Hoffman’s life in this clownish agitator.
A better film would perhaps have focused in an just one of the eight – and it is eight, whatever about the title – like Hoffman for example, and made this mostly his story with the others as supporting characters. Or maybe Hayden if you are so inclined, though Redmayne I feel isn’t as magnetic in the part as he has the ability to be. But instead, in trying to give a bit of time to everyone, Sorkin muddies the waters fairly significantly. This is especially notable given the very lengthy development time that The Trial… had – apparently Sorkin has been evolving this project since 2006 – so you would expect the script to be polished to a sheen, instead of the clunky thing it has come out as in the end product.
There are a number of great scenes and great set-pieces scattered throughout The Trial…, including but not limited to anytime Frank Langella’s pathetically hypocritical judge opens his mouth (a moment where Seale is literally bound and gagged in the courtroom is a perverse, powerful scene, the very epitome of Nixon America trying to, as one character says early, put “manners” on their opponents); the flashbacks to the Chicago riot during the convention, told effectively from the viewpoints of both participants and undercover cops; a third act debate between Hayden and Hoffman over the divide between seeking cultural revolution and left-wing electoral success; Michael Keaton’s extended cameo as the LBJ Attorney General whose testimony proves that the trail is a political weapon (before the judge buries it); and the film’s final scene, wherein the higher point of the whole exercise, the wasteful shedding of blood in Vietnam, is brought back front and centre in an apocryphal, but challenging, set-piece.
It is a pity then, that Sorkin is unable to tie them all together properly, with too much chaff separating the wheat: too many scenes of little point or consequence, whether it is Rubin’s infatuation with the undercover cop beside him during the riots, or the entire contribution to the production of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosecutor, which was the kind of thing that seemed silly in its execution and was imminently cutable. I wanted The Trial… to come together better than it did in that narrative standpoint, but there was simply too much there, even for a 130 minute running time: perhaps I should rename my film review section to “Better As A TV Show”, because that descriptor applies here.
I want to leave my thoughts on the modern relevance of The Trial… to the conclusion, so will move instead to the technical details. It’s a good looking production for the most part, with the drab glumness of the interior court setting contrasting sharply with the varied array of defendants. The cutting back-and-forth between that arena and the events of the 68 convention is done rather well, and those portions of the film focused on the riots are actually pretty well executed in their own right, capturing something of the chaotic melee that they became, where it becomes legitimately hard to know who was responsible and for what at any given time. Grant Park was an actual shooting location, which helps. Some of this stuff is inter-cut with additional material, like Abbie Hoffman regaling people at what is almost an open-mic night.
Aside from all that, this is an actor’s show-piece as Aaron Sorkin productions tend to be. It’s people dominating the frame, whether they are judges or defendants or lookers-on, and Sorkin keeps his camera locked-and-steady so they can deliver their dialogue without much in the way of cinematographers distraction. That dialogue itself is fine, just too dry and overly-lengthy, better suited for a stage production than something of this medium. The dramatic speeches and the terse back-and-forth is captured well enough, quick and quippy, but has that air of unreality in the way that it is faultlessly delivered (only the villains of the piece ever really stumble over their words). Moments of silence are a bit better, like when the varied personalities stand quiet to watch the names of the Vietnam fallen being listed on TV, or when they collectively – bar one – refuse to stand when Judge Hoffman leaves the chamber. From a musical perspective, Sorkin largely refrains from the easy route of having this period piece garlanded with music of the time, with a fairly under-stated score from Daniel Pemberton as an accompaniment. More notable on the auditory level is Celeste’s “Hear My Voice” that plays over the conclusion, one of the year’s better original songs from film.
Regardless of anything else, The Trial… is a film that simply must be viewed through a lens of the modern political environment in the United States. The comparisons are many, and all apt: a government run by an unashamed criminal; the dominant party of government being a cesspit of hypocrisy, corruption and hateful ideology; opponents of the regime painted as anarchist malcontents; dissent being painted as treason; a racist, biased and unjust justice system; political policing; violence against minorities; ongoing unworthy military operations; and a sense, undeniable, that “the system” is not only not fit for purpose, but must be torn down if any progress is to be made.
The Trial… then can only be viewed as an unashamed, loud-and-proud propaganda piece, one that seeks to draw the eye of those going to the polls in a few weeks to a very similar time in American history. Hindsight provides some very potent imagery: the administration that sought to make an example of the Chicago 8 was one that was mired in disgrace just a few years later, and is now considered one of the worst administrations in the history of the United States. The war they prosecuted is now America’s unadulterated shame. Nixon, his Republican allies, and those denizens of the system like Judge Hoffman who propped it all up, were very much on the wrong side of history, just as Trump, his Republican toadies and the same flawed judiciary will inevitably also be on the wrong side of history. You know it, I know it, they know it in their heart of hearts, we all know it. For that reason, despite its many flaws, I do find myself thinking that The Trial… is the perfect film for this month, ahead of the left’s efforts to get American back on the correct track in a few weeks. It is a rallying cry in the very best ways, asking us to remember the worst of the past so we can change course in the present. As is said over and over again, by crowds and individuals, “The whole world is watching”.
So, The Trial… is that mixed bag: a film that plays a little fast-and-loose with the historical record, that has too many protagonists for its own good, that lacks some of the drive and urgency of other films from the same writer/director. Judging it purely on its own merits, I would say that it is an interesting, yet flawed piece, one worth watching for a few of the performances and set-pieces, but not really all that impactful otherwise. But as a film of October 2020, at another one of those crossroads of the human experience in the modern age, it is not only interesting, but vital. Its clarion call of refusing to prop up a broken system, and refusing to surrender to that broken system, is one that comes at the perfect time, when the same Republican Party, that has repeatedly shown itself as totally irredeemable in the last four years, is hopefully brought to account for its many shameful failures. One shout depicted in the film keeps coming back to my mind, and it is one that I feel is the perfect slogan, to describe not only this battle, but the willingness of those climbing it to keep going, no matter the opposition. To the voters of America, and to all of those on the left who will never willingly submit to what the right has attempted to do there and elsewhere, I say only this: Take the hill. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).