Throughout his celebrated career, writer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”) has proven a master of snappy dialogue and the dynamics of power, whether you find his Hollywood idealism and occasional mansplaining to be pretentious or not. And he has plenty to chew on in his latest, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which opened at Movieland today for a limited run and will be available to Netflix subscribers on Oct. 16.
Sorkin directed this film as well, though his skills in that department don’t match his abilities with the written word. The movie still offers a well acted, briskly edited, and often absorbing account of the notorious political show trial from 1969 that included Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Seven lefties were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot following violent clashes between protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It wasn’t just teargas back then, cops basically played a massive whack-a-mole game with protesters’ skulls and the blood flowed freely.
The latest movie recreation of the trial, a mix of flashbacks and courtroom drama, feels made for television. It easily could've been a limited series; a lot of info is jammed into two hours considering the trial alone lasted six months. But Sorkin moves things along quickly. We get dramatic soundtrack flourishes telling us when to feel, loud metaphors and fast dialogue built from courtroom transcripts and the usual Sorkian zingers, and an emotional courtroom finale that plays like that cliche of slowly building handclaps, or in this case, raised fists. But the biggest selling point is how timely it all feels, coming during the worst polarization this country has seen since the 1960s, as well as changes to laws regarding protesters and the most consequential election of our lives in a few weeks.
Strong performances are delivered by Sacha Baron Cohen, who provides a heartfelt tribute to the humor and shrewdness of anarchist Hoffman, as well as Mark Rylance as the weary-eyed but combative defense lawyer, William Kunstler, and the always reliable Michael Keaton in a cameo as a gruff witness for the defense.
Most of those involved were protesting the Vietnam War, not systemic racism, yet there are still many parallels with this summer’s unrest. At its core, Sorkin smartly zeroes in on a central division in this country between those who question authority and those "law-and-order" folks who despise anyone who would upset the established order, usually from beneath an umbrella of American patriotism. Not surprisingly, the people clinging to traditional authority – then and now – often are the ones who gain the most from its perpetuation.
Sorkin leaves no question who to root for at every turn. The heroes and villains -- such as the almost cartoonishly bad Judge Julius Hoffman, played with aplomb by Frank Langella -- feel almost too neatly clearcut. It made me want to read more or watch a documentary on the case to see if the judge really was that biased. (According to most accounts, including his own obit, he was.) More interesting is the friction on the left between Hayden, an idealist who seeks institutional change from within the system, and Hoffman, a media savvy jester who prefers the prankster playbook – and who Hayden worries will taint public perception of the left as stoned clowns for generations. It was a legitimate concern, especially if you look at the rise of Reagan. Hoffman would kill himself in 1989.
Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, comes across as somewhat one dimensional, in a constant state of Black rage, after suffering rounds of humiliation from the judge. His story plays like a separate, possibly more interesting movie that accidentally wandered into this one. In one scene, Seale calls out Hayden (Jane Fonda’s ex) as a well-heeled protester simply trying to get back at his own father --“a lot different from bodies hanging in trees,” Seale points out, in what feels like a kind of foreshadowing.
Sorkin still feels most effective illuminating those pivotal moments in backrooms among the defendants or the powers that be (his chef's specialty) including political reasons for how the trial came to be. A major takeaway seems to be how the government used this trial to frame public perception of the wider left as violent, anti-American thugs – in the same manner that the Trump administration and certain mainstream media outlets are doing today in places like Portland and St. Louis.
Like many Boomers, Sorkin seems to long for the old days when it was easier to discern the good from the bad actors. The time before media and politicians had become almost entirely distrusted and reviled; before everyone had their own facts (or personal truths) tailored by internet monopolies selling 24-7 ad engagement; and the far left had yet to adopt the tactics of the far right in a disturbing race to a bottom seemingly without floor.
As Seale says in the film, we tried it nonviolently, now we’re going to try something else. Depending on how the election goes in a few weeks, we may be about to find out what that means in the 21st century.