Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, focuses on the prosecution of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Stron), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), along with Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While this must have been shot before the 2020 Race Riots, it’s uncannily prescient of right-wing efforts to pathologise protestors in the present. It also resonates with the present in other ways too – in the defendants’ yearning to hold the Democratic Party properly accountable for progressive politics, in their exhaustion with centrism, their exhaustion with peaceful protest and their exhaustion, above all, with police brutality. Set on the cusp of the Nixon era, and a Republican agenda that revolves around “bringing back good manners” while decimating civil liberties, the entire film offers an origin drama for the present, and Sorkin’s take on how the left has devolved in the present.
Most of the scenes away from the protests and courtrooms are quite baggy and stagey, but luckily there aren’t that many of them, as Sorkin stays pretty close to the trial. In fact, the courtroom procedure is so informationally dense that it’s often like watching a real-time trial unfold, so you’d do well to have a notepad handy, especially during the opening scenes. Before we arrive at the trial, however, Sorkin starts with an extended montage sequence that introduces us to all the key defendants, as their various vehicles for questioning the war in Vietnam – Black Panthers, Yippies, SDS, MOBE – converge on Chicago. Sorkin tends to cut from group to group mid-sentence, and often to explicitly contradictory sentences, using montage to envisage a leftist consensus – and a certain degree of comfort with contradiction and difference – that might capitalise upon the pivotal moment in US history that was 1968.
From there, we shift directly to the trial, with the events of the protests being told in flashback, and yet from the outset there’s never any real sense of the defendants being pitted against the prosection in a conventional way, just because the defendants never concede that they’re in a conventional court of law. Admittedly, they’re initially divided about whether to treat this as a regular trial or as straight-up political theatre, with the more radical amongst them straining at the boundaries of protocol and procedure right away. In these early scenes, the film plays like an inversion of 12 Angry Men, in which it is now the defendants, grouped from diverse leftist walks of life, who have to find some kind of consensus and continuum. They especially feel like a jury when they retire to their conference room, early on, for the critical conversation about whether to take the proceedings seriously as an act of due process.
It doesn’t take them long, however, to realise that due process is being manipulated and thwarted at every turn, thanks in part to presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who effectively transforms this into a show trial. Guided by their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), their legal sparring is intercut with quieter, eerier moments when they all glimpse the mechanics of this act of political theatre. In one scene, they watch on when the counsels gather at Hoffman’s podium to discuss a pair of threatening notes, ostensibly penned by the Black Panthers, that have been mailed to the two liberal jurors to disqualify them from the case. In another scene, the noise of clamour of the courtroom fades as Hayden hones in on the name tag of the police officer charged with sequestering the jury – one of Hoffman’s many undermining decisions – as he remembers the police officers who brutalised him in Chicago.
This is when the film really gets into first gear – when the defendants are all working against the machinations of the court, rather than mistaking it for a serious prosection, which perhaps explains why Federal Prosector Richard Shultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tends to fade into the background. Sorkin’s histrionic style always borders on farce, but as soon as the defendants acknowledge the trial as farce, they – and the film – have an object to define their own farcical tendencies against, and so keep Sorkin’s florid style in check. Beyond a certain point, the justice system here simply consists in policing and preventing free speech, from a horrific scene in which Hoffman orders Seale to be bound and gagged, to an illuminating cross-examination of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) that the jury are never permitted to see, or even know took place. As a result, the best way for the defendants to challenge the court’s moratorium on free speech is through the florid, flamboyant and slightly absurd acts of free speech that Sorkin writes so well when he really gets into a flow.
This scepticism of the courtroom quickly extends to the police force that upholds it – the police force that incited the riots – turning The Trial of the Chicago 7 into an abolitionist courtoom drama. That’s a contradiction in terms, and difficult to formulate logically, meaning there’s an onus on Sorkin to envisage it stylistically, not unlike the way his brilliant opening montage sequence evokes a leftist consensus that didn’t quite occur historically. It’s here that the film feels a little old-fashioned, and Sorkin’s limitations as a director start to show. For all that the courtroom is presented as the main antagonist in the film, it’s never enlivened or personified as dramatically as, say, the swooping crane shots and distorted perspectives of the courtroom scenes in American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson. When all is said and done, Sorkin is still the creator of The West Wing, and there’s a synergy between the release of this film and the recent round table read of his magnum opus, since for all the muted affect of these late offerings they still both share a residual faith in the American democratic system.
Admittedly, Sorkin questions the system more than ever before here – especially in the third act, which continually offers glimpses of a revolutionary necessity that can’t or won’t be contained by the film as a whole. In one especially volatile scene, Hayden chides Davis for his “cultural revolution” and instead insists on the primacy of “electoral strategy” only for Kunstler to reveal a tape that seems to show Hayden himself inciting the first of the riots. More generally, Sorkin’s histrionic style, which intensifies in this third act, can’t help but evoke characters on the very cusp of action – characters trying to talk themselves into believing that speech is enough, or that free speech still exists. The intensity of the violence, including the sexual violence – the first for a Sorkin film – during the flashback scenes also makes it feel as if speech is no longer enough and that and some kind of drastic action is now the only way.
For an even briefer moment Sorkin concedes that revolution might simply be a natural outgrowth of his beloved democratic liberalism, as Davis points out that Lincoln himself presented American revolution as a right and a necessity under the right circumstances. Rather than revolution and electoral policy being opposite tactics, revolution becomes a logical extension of electoral strategy, meaning that Lincoln himself would have been part of the protests in Lincoln Park, which were themselves just a “massive voter registration drive.” This point is perhaps the pivotal moment in the film, since Sorkin plays it perfectly so that it seems provocative in 1968, but entirely reasonable in 2020, when Americans have to demonstrate simply for the right to vote. Standing in lines for twelve hours at a time to reach a ballot box is in itself a form of demonstration, in the most literal way, as the film recognises.
Yet the film only teeters at this brink between democratic liberalism and revolutionary politics for the briefest of moments, before Sorkin capitulates into a more West Wing sentiment: “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by terrible people.” Interestingly, this capitulation occurs right at the hub of the film’s flashbacks, when we see the police inciting the riot for the first and only time. This occurs outside a conservative club which Hayden describes as a relic of the 1950s, so when the police take off their nametags and badges, and literally smash the protestors through the window, they’re attempting to send them back in time from 1968 to a mid-century mentality and worldview.
If any event was going to lead to revolutionary action, you’d think it would be this one, but instead Sorkin chooses this precise moment to double down on speech, since it inspires Davis into the forensic-linguistic observation – something about Hayden’s use of possessive pronouns and noun modifiers in his call to revolution – that supposedly wins the trial. Rather than Hayden’s call to revolution being treated as a revolutionary act, it’s absorbed back into Sorkin’s anal-retentive wordplay, producing a pretty inchoate ending that aims to both abolish and affirm the courtroom where we’ve seen all this play out. Tasked with making a final statement before the jury return, Hayden reads out the names of all the soldiers killed in Vietnam – a beautiful moment of procedural disruption, not just because it takes so long, and cuts against the significance of the verdict, but because none of these right-wing pundits in court can bear to stand in respect, revealing the hollowness of their patriotic protestations.
Yet this disruptive moment quickly gives way to two minutes of rapturous applause, and then a freeze-frame of the courtroom, as a series of intertitles tell us the fate of the Chicago 7. Some of them turned out OK, but some of their gestures – such as Hoffman’s publication of Steal This Book! and subsequent suicide – suggest an ongoing frustration that Sorkin’s sentimental and old-fashioned ending can’t entirely process. As if in concession to this fact, Sorkin briefly unfreezes the courtroom, but all we hear is more applause, before he freezes it again a moment later, and then cuts to black. An abolitionist courtroom drama ends with Sorkin enshrining the court not once but twice, literally freezing it in time even as he appears to be considering how its devolutions produced the present. Just as Steve Jobs and Molly’s Game took Sorkin’s fixation with male blowhards to a logical endpoint, so The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes his democratic liberalism and love of free speech as far as it will go – the westernmost part of the West Wing – so it’s quite intriguing to wonder where his next films might take us.