The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Review)

Aaron Sorkin’s drama about a landmark court case that revolves around issues of police violence, corruption of the legal system and racism begins with a getting the gang together style montage. The pre-credits sequence is edited to playful music that evokes a caper or adventure. The key figures of the trial are introduced here, sort of, as we see the moments before they head to the protest – a protest that was consumed by police violence and an event that led to these seven figures being put on trial. I say sort of introduced because the opening is more interested in snappy filmmaking than it is in character. The script is written so that sentences are left open to be finished by the next person (as we transition between discrete groups of people in different locations), introducing each character in a seamless way and keeping the narrative momentum going. The pace is fast but the result is a complete loss of identity and character. The individuals here are just pawns for a script, they are there to facilitate information and nothing more. But, the film relies on this context – we spend the next two hours with these people and are supposed to root for them. Unfortunately, Sorkin is so keen to have his day in court that he fast-forwards through the context and therefore loses a sense of reality or authenticity.

This lack of authenticity is the core issue with Sorkin’s film. There are many issues but they all lead to this same destination. At the heart of this film is an important story as it chronicles the trial of seven men are, unfairly, put on trial for ‘inciting a riot’. The seven men are carefully chosen political targets and the whole trial is part of a conspiratorial move to crush the anti-Vietnam war movement, and anti-establishment thought. It is an important tale but it is incredibly poorly told. At every point Sorkin favours bombast and flair over realism or impact, hyperbolising the events to the extent that the resonance fades away. The entire thing feels fake and falls completely flat.

This issue starts with the writing. The script is full of one-liners, witticisms and very overtly written dialogue. Like much of Sorkin’s work, characters speak like different incarnations of Aaron Sorkin all competing over being the quickest, wittiest person in the room. The constant pursuit of rhetoric creates a thick veneer of artifice in which every moment feels theatrical. Everything is so overtly constructed and non-natural, and this comes from the narrative structure also. As previously mentioned, the film is somewhat scuppered at the start by setting the wrong tone. We watch footage of assassinations and war crimes to a jaunty beat intercut with witty lines, the atmosphere set is one of lightness and frivolity. The tone needs to be serious and meaningful – these are important issues that are real and should be treated as real – but Sorkin instead resorts to theatrics and gimmicky storytelling. And this issue keeps returning.

The film cuts from before the protest to the start of the court case, skipping over the event the actual film is predicated on. This is initially confusing and seems inelegant, as Sorkin sets up a narrative before the title card and then jumps to a different narrative straight after it. This is because he wants to slowly unfurl the inciting events at the most dramatic time, which feels very manipulative. We get slight foreshadowing of later moments and, consistently, moments of brutality and violence are diminished to dramatic plot revelations. The driving force here is narrative convenience (on what makes things ‘cinematic’) as Sorkin swaps between multiple framing devices. The story is mostly told through the court case proceedings but the testimonies are dramatised – as we flash back to how it happened – and then these moments are further intercut with Sacha Baron Cohen’s incarnation of Abbie Hoffman giving a speech at some point in the future that is telling the same story. Hoffman’s telling is presented as a pseudo-stand-up routine to a college audience, giving a bit of narrative variance, and feeling really unnecessary. This sporadic approach just does not work, as the events are not allowed to stand up for themselves or speak for themselves, in this film they must be jazzed up. This is most obviously true when it comes to depictions of police violence. These horrific acts are inherently shocking and uncomfortable but the presentation is so cinematic that the impact is diminished. It just looks like a film due to the editing, a belting soundtrack and the conflicting narrative styles. There is poor use of slow motion and frequent quick cuts. What should be presented plainly, as it carries inherent impact, is made theatrical in a way that is rather tasteless.

But this is the approach of the whole film. This should be a story about police violence and institutional corruption, one that is incredibly relevant right now. Rather than making that story, Sorkin makes a flashy and theatrical court room drama that is very in love with itself. The focus is on filmic things, not on the import, the message or the emotion. It is a showcase for actors doing a lot of acting and for as many snappy devices as the filmmakers can throw in. There are so many great actors here, and some bad ones, but nobody is particularly good (with some very minor exceptions). Most of this is down to the script making everybody feel like a caricature, but Eddie Redmayne (always one to insist on doing the most acting in every scene possible) and Sacha Baron Coen particularly stand out due to their experiments with accents. Redmayne, in general, is just distracting, as every time he is in frame he is exhibiting some affect or motion that just draws attention to the process of acting as opposed to the art of creating and evoking a character. Outside of this, it is just a procession of familiar faces basically serving as stunt casting. At one point Michael Keaton turns up for a pivotal role that is overshadowed by the fact it is Michael Keaton – yet another famous face. The film is just a profession of famous male faces put there to pontificate and be theatrical in a way that overwhelms any authenticity.

Primarily, I think the film is poorly made. The narrative construction is manipulative and sloppy; the style is incongruous with the material and the act of filmmaking overwhelms everything in the film. Here, the tools of the filmmaker are not used to evoke, they are used to show off in a way that feels empty. However, the film is also a mess on a political level. My politics fall much further left than Sorkin’s and this film is a stark reminder of that. The crux of this historical moment is that the criminal justice system is inherently flawed. It does not work. It is corrupt. Sorkin does show it as ridiculous, as a circus perhaps. But, it is a Felliniesque filmic circus that you can tell he is a little bit in love with. The camera and overall aesthetic adore the sense of grandeur and sing an ode to the potential of the establishment. After a point, the film does settle into a debate between overthrowing the establishment or fixing the establishment but it is a poorly handled debate that is awfully facilitated. Before this we have issues of racial equality used as side story, and ignored when it is appropriate. The centrepiece of this being a moment of racist humiliation towards Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (an actor who gives one of the few good performances) as Bobby Seale which is used, manipulatively, to merely show that the lawyer for the prosecution does have a heart. The lawyer is moved to his feet by seeing an overt act of racism, allowing the film to show that some things are too far, but all that the viewer will remember is how the previous acts of racism – the less overt ones – went not only ignored by enabled. In addition to this, archival photos of the murder of Fred Hampton are used for cinematic flair in order to disrupt the sleep of Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, waking him up to then receive the news, via phone, of Hampton’s death. It is a remarkably ill-judged moment that also seems to imply Tom Hayden is some kind of psychic – or is it just terrible storytelling in which aesthetic overpowers both narrative and taste? Probably the latter.

We do get to a showdown though: a few sequences where the liberal incrementalists are shown to be hypocritical and flawed. One of these is very well done, though is tainted by the overall tacky aesthetic, in which Tom Hayden is given a mock trial by Mark Rylance as William Kunstler. Hayden represents the idea throughout that you can beat the system through skill and integrity – that he is the rational man in the room that will win because justice and truth is on his side. The belief that you can use the establishment to fight the establishment. And we see that fail. We see a façade fall away and the more revolutionary figure takes the spotlight. There is an interesting debate before this where the radical debates the liberal – but this whole sequence is tainted by setup. The film has spent the last ninety minutes presenting revolutionary Hoffman as a punchline, as comedic relief, and then uses him as a chess piece in a serious argument – which just does not work. If Sorkin wants to show the need for revolutionary thought and action, he can’t treat it as a punching bag for most of the film; the messaging just does not come together. And then this figure takes to the stand and Sorkin showcases the power of rhetoric once again. The flirtation with direct action is over, this is yet another piece of culture from Sorkin that lionises the man who thinks he is the smartest person in the room; the one that can rationally debate his way out of every issue. And everything else is a backdrop for this. The police violence, which should be the focus, is there to facilitate the court room arguments. The undeniable signs of corruption in the legal system, levels of corruption that cannot be repaired, are just there to make our speakers more impressive. The film skirts around real issues and focuses on hollow rhetoric.

The final flaw comes at the very end. We build up to one final speech, of course, and a character pulls a surprise manoeuvre. The real focus of the film is revealed, and though there is an inherent power to what Sorkin is trying to convey here it comes at the cost of ignoring so much else. It also feels disingenuous as it invokes an issue it has side-lined for pretty much the whole film. But the real sin is in the presentation, as the music soars and overwhelms. Any sense of realism and power is plastered over by filmic artifice, by a need to manipulate and hyperbolise when this is completely unnecessary. And everybody claps, and cheers and raises fists. The camera then pans, purposefully, to where one person specifically stands as a show of solidarity, to illustrate what Sorkin sees as the real victory. Of course, we end with a show of an establishment figure – one actively working as a tool of a corrupt regime that facilitates racism, violence, war and general injustice – turning out to be one of the good ones (this is alluded to earlier in a confusing and utterly unnecessary scene). So, after two hours of incontrovertible evidence for the entire system being completely corrupt we end with humanising that system, giving it a moment of lingering redemption. But, what else do you expect from a Sorkin political drama? Which is why the filmic failures of this movie are so important. My leftist views are so often left unsatiated by films, even films that I love, because some films have so much else to offer. This is not true of Sorkin’s latest. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a poorly constructed, hammy mess. It feels artificial from beginning to end and does a disservice to an important reality.

One thought on “The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Review)

  1. I like your analogy of “pawns” to a script. I felt the same with Mank. Some of these characters are either hollow or caricatures that are way over the top. I like Sorkin’s rapid fire writing, but here it comes across as an exercise. I did, however, enjoy the parallels to the art of the protest back then and the chaos we have witnessed currently.


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