Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella
Streaming on: Netflix
It is said that Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2007. Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the legal drama. Destiny had other plans. The film, based on events of the late 1960s, and written and directed by Sorkin himself, will instead go down as one of the finest films of 2020. The Trial of the Chicago 7 didn’t choose its time. It’s not like Sorkin waited for his art to imitate life. But time did choose this film. Democracy waited long enough for history – and therefore, art – to repeat itself. The topicality of a movie might be entirely incidental, but the resonance and rage – of watching the war for justice hijack the courtroom of truth – is universal.
A disparate group of anti-Vietnam War protestors is charged for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The U.S. government puts “the Chicago Seven” on trial for conspiracy. The eighth is an African American man, the founder of the Blank Panthers, whose battle against racial discrimination is relegated to the umbrella of “anti-national” leftist outfits. For months, the nation’s cameras are focused on the courtroom. For months, a nation is distracted from the blood of a tumultuous war and fallen futures, instead engrossed in the theater of right and wrong. Replace anti-Vietnam with anti-CAA, the U.S. federal government with the Indian government, the Chicago riots with the Delhi riots, the Chicago Police brutality with the Delhi Police brutality, and the Chicago 7 with JNU student leaders – and the dynamics don’t change one bit.
That’s the thing about “political trials”. They are inherently cinematic because the cinema in them is quite literal – these are essentially lavish, provocative and elaborately scripted productions conceived by administrations and covered by the media as escapist entertainment for the general public. Everyone is a character. Everything is a spectacle. As a result, chants of “the world is watching” acquire a more sinister context.
Aaron Sorkin constructs this anatomy of the absurd with clear-headed angst. The narrative is consumed by the cultural moment – and its questions about morality, patriotism, law and systemic bias. Sorkin characters don’t stutter. They recite thoughts with alarming fluidity and clarity – their rapid repartee is designed to convey intellectual superiority, their mouths strain to keep up with their quick-witted minds. The Trial of the Chicago 7, much like The Social Network, is based in an environment that earns this sort of quasi-literary energy. Lawyers can’t afford to falter in their arguments, the defendants can’t afford to sound unsure of their disruptive perspectives.
Yet, the first hour of the film is littered with people speaking over one another, double-taking, mishearing, mispronouncing and routinely messing with the rhythm of courtroom jousting. When young district attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) presents his opening statement to the jury, he is interrupted no less than four times by the distracted judge: Once, to even remind the jury that, owing to similar surnames (Hoffman), he should not be confused with a defendant. Schultz is exasperated by the time he reaches the end of his statement. The film’s morbid sense of humour – where it almost parodies the Hollywood seamlessness of legal thrillers – is a recurring motif. What this tone does is hint at the tactical arrogance of the trial. The narrative refuses to be serious about its participants, framing them as vaudeville troopers determined to defy the spotlight. After all, it’s funny to see just how far a government goes to manipulate the law. The “undercover” montage in particular – where almost half the protestors are revealed to be cops – would’ve been hilarious if they weren’t so ridiculously rooted in facts.
What the tone also does is set up the process for a sobering jolt at the halfway mark. That it takes the abuse of a black man to remind both the film’s viewers and the defendants of deep-rooted systemic apathy – and by ideological extension, their original motive – only informs the film’s sense of deceit. The defendants were so busy being victims that the most fundamental form of victimhood had escaped their attention. Uptil then, Black Panther founder Bobby Seale had gone to great lengths to ensure that his dissent sounded different – and louder – than the others; he didn’t want to be associated with such a privileged form of disenfranchisement, his fight was always bleeker. For a powerful few scenes, the whiteness of the courtroom is put in context: the Chicago Seven’s political persecution pales in comparison to the primal persecution of lineage.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a remarkable achievement, because in a way this film is its own villain: the more riveting it becomes, the more distant we (are meant to) grow from the bigger picture
Immediately, the film shakes off its blinkers and the “performers” begin behaving like historically responsible figures. Suddenly we notice that one of them has been religiously writing down the names of the American soldiers who’ve died in Vietnam since the trial started. We begin to see, piece by piece – but not peace by peace – the anatomy of the riot interspersed with the individualism of the Seven. There’s so much going on, and yet one senses that it all ties in to demonstrate the psychological bandwidth of a movement.
The change of pace is incisive, and the ensemble brims with all-star form. It’s clear that each of the defendants – despite being on the “right” (left) side – is a flawed rebel. All the bases of protest are covered: There are the eloquent stoners (an acerbic Sacha Baron Cohen, a Coen-ish Jeremy Strong), the angry dad (John Carroll Lynch), the academic but impulsive liberal (a terrific Eddie Redmayne), the quiet crusader (Alex Sharp), and even the deer-in-headlight cubs. Their general outlook may be progressive, but their temperament lacks a sense of coherence. However it’s the stoic Mark Rylance who stands out as the disenchanted defense lawyer, and the ever-reliable Frank Langella as the judge who tries to hide his cog-in-the-corrupt-wheel status behind a series of stern mannerisms. It also consistently astounds me how British (or Australian) actors pull off regional American accents with ease – because the results aren’t half as impressive when American actors confuse English-ness with aristocracy.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a remarkable achievement, because in a way this film is its own villain: the more riveting it becomes, the more distant we (are meant to) grow from the bigger picture. And to its credit, the narrative weaponizes the irony by unfolding entirely in the form of a heated discussion – only to ultimately acknowledge its own preoccupied gaze. It’s never an easy feat: for a movie to be both a movie as well as a soul-searching indictment of its own voice. But Aaron Sorkin is nothing if not sentimental. A schmaltzy climax belongs here because, for better or worse, the revolution is only the prelude; the fate of a revolutionary is the story. Truth is the rusty trigger, but justice is the lethal bullet.