Demonstrators clashing with police. A court battle waged by a vindictive administration. A fraught election year, a fast-climbing death toll, a nation in turmoil. These are few of the things we see and hear in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s slick, talkative new film about the bloody chaos that erupted outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the absurd and infuriating legal circus that followed. The echoes of our political present, booming right back at us from across half a century, are about as subtle as the shouts we hear during the protests and later at the courthouse: “The whole world is watching!” Indeed it was, as it is now. I suppose that makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 what you might call “timely,” a word that’s practically become meaningless with how much its overused — particularly in film discourse, where timeliness often functions as a glib signifier of importance, currency and presumed Oscar-worthiness. You might even chuckle when Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), one of the eight anti-Vietnam War protestors indicted on charges of conspiracy to incite a riot, describes the 1968 clash as “the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.” He’s embellishing a quote attributed to another defendant, Jerry Rubin; he’s also referencing what some hope will be in the cards for this movie.
But even if The Trial of the Chicago 7 qualified as catnip for Oscar voters, it also, to its credit, rarely exaggerates its own topicality. Sorkin, who wrote the script in 2007 (and eventually inherited the directing reins from Steven Spielberg), understands that the story being told here is actually just timeless. And he and his collaborators have applied their considerable skill to telling that story in as crisp, compelling and streamlined a fashion as possible and to let the present-day implications follow on their own. Given the sprawling cast of characters and the juxtaposition of multiple time frames, the clarity of the result is bracing, and maybe also a bit deflating. One of the pleasures and shortcomings of this kind of Hollywood history lesson is that it seeks to impose a sense of order and tidiness on events, moments and personalities that are by nature complicated and resistant to being easily summarized. Curiously, that narrative strategy subliminally mirrors the tactics of the prosecution, which contends — at the insistence of President Richard Nixon’s newly installed attorney general, John Mitchell (John Dolan) — that eight men deliberately masterminded and instigated the 1968 unrest. It’s a dubious allegation, privately doubted even by the lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who notes that some of the defendants had never even met before crossing state lines into Illinois.
We meet them ourselves in a smooth opening montage that immediately casts doubt on the notion that these guys could have even agreed on where to have lunch, let alone how to stage a revolution. In one corner there is the Students for a Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie David (Alex Sharp), who head to Chicago eager to show off the moral and political seriousness of a younger generation of activists. Laughing at such seriousness, meanwhile, are Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), whose raucous Yippie spirit — why not protest a war and throw a massive free-love celebration in Grant Park? — will make them the undisputed celebrities of the whole debacle. Despite their very different aims and methods, the men intend a peaceful protest. Their commitment to nonviolence is echoed by another defendant, the conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and upheld by two mild-mannered scapegoats, Weiner and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), who have been indicted mainly to make the other defendants look worse. The worst-looking one of all, in the prosecution’s racist estimation, is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Panther Party, who’s so enraged at being dragged into the proceedings that he refuses to be represented by the defense’s hard-working attorneys, William Kunstler (a fantastic Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
Seale, forcefully played by Abdul-Mateen, makes clear that he’s the defendant with the most to lose. He’s also the one most openly scornful of the judge, Julius Hoffman, whose glowering pettiness and bias against the defense couldn’t come through more clearly in Frank Langella’s belligerent performance. Seale’s eventual mistrial — granted only after he is physically bound and gagged, in a horrifying re-enactment of the trial’s most troubling episode — accounts for how the Chicago Eight ultimately became the Chicago Seven. Like other works that have attempted to make dramatic sense of this jaw-dropping story, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is at pains to balance the showboating courtroom theatrics with a deeper consideration of context. Sorkin takes pains to establish the political-historical frenzy of the late ’60s, with early nods to the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the ever-rising number of American soldiers being sent to Vietnam. But he keeps the background of fallout at a tasteful, dramatically strategic remove. The tumultuous four-day convention itself is revisited in archival clips and scripted flashbacks, with a heavy assist from Alan Baumgarten’s agile editing. But the full trauma of the riot itself, culminating in ghastly images of blue-helmeted cops assaulting protestors with nightsticks and tear gas, is only briefly allowed to break the movie’s meticulously well-argued surface.
Although Sorkin made a solid directing debut with 2017’s crackling Molly’s Game, it’s hard not to wonder if a different filmmaker (with better visual sensibilities) might have productively shifted the balance here, perhaps treated his dazzling words as the movie’s skeleton, not its star. But as was already clear from A Few Good Men and The Social Network, legal drama has always been Sorkin’s sweet spot, the most natural fit for his sparring, process-oriented writing style. (The trial here needs little of his comic embellishment to descend into full-blown farce; some of the script’s funnier moments, including a verbal tussle between the two Hoffmans, emerge more or less intact from the court transcripts.) The result is an unsurprising feast of Sorkinese, full of insults and rebuttals, argumentation and oneupmanship, and it’s never more satisfying than when Michael Keaton turns up and delivers a killer of a performance as a character whose context I wouldn’t even think about giving away. The courtroom’s behavioral divide — between the unruly, disruptive language of protest and the judge’s authoritarian insistence of order — is shown to be an implicitly political one. Another version of it plays out between the two most adversarial defendants: Tom Hayden, brought to impassioned life by Redmayne, and Abbie Hoffman, whose streak of performative anarchy is such a natural fit for Cohen that it makes the actor’s restraint all the more gratifying. (He and Strong’s cheerfully stoned-out Rubin make for a winning comic duo.) Hayden wants to play by the rules and effect meaningful change within the system; Hoffman mocks the idea of decorum and seeks a more radical overhaul. The two come together and further remind just how frustrating the pursuit of solidarity can be.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, smoothly entertaining as it is, may also elude clear consensus. Democracy is a messy business, but an element of real, lived-in messiness seems beyond this movie’s scope. At times straining itself with its cloying sanctimony, everything runs like clockwork in the film, even the requisite soul searching: Nearly every major character is forced to grapple with some inner weakness, some unexamined hypocrisy, and you can practically see the simplistic arcs snapping into place from the opening frame. The dialogue pops but rarely overlaps, the way it does in real life, because if it did, you wouldn’t be hearing the voice of Sorkin the screenwriter, with his perfectly engineered setups and comebacks. You might actually risk hearing the voices of the characters themselves. A slick, verbose film of a firecracker snap and grandstanding urgency, The Trial of the Chicago 7 definitely carries its cornball moments, but it more often shines as an actor’s buffet of juicy courtroom drama.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix