Aaron Sorkin is not the man you go to for historical accuracy or reverence in your movies and television shows. It shouldn’t have to be said, especially as narrative films and television in general don’t — and can’t — fill that need, but Sorkin in particular is too often mistaken for a wannabe historian or educator when in reality he’s “merely” an entertainer. His latest work seemingly guaranteed to rile those on both the Right and the Left is the new Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Its plea for liberty will upset some while its frequent liberties will annoy others, but if you can get past political leanings and Sorkin’s love for his own writing the film delivers where it matters most — as eye-opening entertainment.
“A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state,” says a somber Walter Cronkite in archival news footage from 1968. “There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” The convention should have been home to conversation and peaceful protests, but it instead erupts into violence thanks in large part to the orders of a vindictive mayor and the actions of aggressively violent police officers. (Sorry, that’s redundant.) Richard Nixon’s incoming justice department orders the arrest and prosecution of several men to be charged under the untested and racially motivated Rap Brown Law which makes it a crime to conspire and cross state lines. The men were tagged as The Chicago 7 — or more accurately, The Chicago 8 — and it’s their journey through an imperfect and highly flawed legal system that finds life here.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s ninth feature as writer but only his second directorial effort. It’s a more cinematic outing than Molly’s Game (2017), but his director’s eye is still never the film’s strong suit. Instead, it’s his script, the cast, and the glimpse into one of the United States’ less flattering chapters that makes for an entertaining watch that might just double as an informative one too. Audiences will laugh along with the wit and humor, and the odds are good that many of them will learn a thing or two along the way too.
As mentioned at the top, Sorkin isn’t a filmmaker who feels bound by historical accuracy in his writing even while telling stories about real people and events. His last five films are fictional depictions of biographical accounts — Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), Steve Jobs (2015), and Molly’s Game — and while their entertainment value varies so do the facts on display. Sorkin champions wordplay and wit over those pesky facts, but that’s only a deal-breaker for viewers who let it be. To be clear, it’s an understandable deal-breaker, but if you can get past that, Sorkin’s latest offers a damning glimpse into our recent past that holds up a sad mirror to today’s tumultuous America. That it does so while being entertaining and laugh out loud funny is no small feat.
The trial was an uphill battle for the accused and their lawyers (Mark Rylance, Ben Shenkman) — the judge (Frank Langella) was old, conservative, and possibly incompetent, the prosecutors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie) were intent on sending a message, and the full weight of the U.S. government was pressing on their backs. They were on trial for carrying “certain ideas across state lines” with a law established to prevent African Americans from gathering in dissent, and the argument that these protestors were interested only in violence is a lie that’s still told today. Too many Americans are unaware of this, and as similar events unfold across our televisions in the year 2020 it’s a reminder that’s absolutely, and sadly, necessary.
Sorkin’s script is vibrant and alive, and he’s assembled a talented pool of players to bring these real people to fictional life in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen play Youth International Party leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, respectively, and while both actors are ten to fifteen years older than their characters were at the time that detail doesn’t hurt the effect generated by their skill and charisma. Students for a Democratic Society leaders Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden are played by Alex Sharp and Eddie Redmayne, the latter with a slightly distracting actor affectation that sees his left shoulder constantly slumping, and John Carroll Lynch plays noted pacifist David Dellinger.
Bobby Seale, the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, played a supporting role in the real-world case as prosecutors added him into the mix despite there being no evidence he was associated with the others — hence the distinction for some between the Chicago 7 and the Chicago 8. Seale’s presence was of great importance, though, and that comes through in Yahya Abdul-Mateen II‘s performance. While other characters are a bit showy, Seale is a more serious man fighting for even greater stakes, and Abdul-Mateen delivers a charismatically imposing figure who reminds people that this nation’s sins started long before the 60s. Sorkin captures the moment in which Seale was literally bound and gagged during the trial, and while he shortens the true duration dramatically for more immediate effect it remains an unavoidably powerful sequence.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays fast and loose with minor facts and biographical details in exchange for a well-paced and entertaining watch. The big truths, though, are all here, and they paint a deservedly critical picture of a government terrified of dissent by its people and of losing control. It was a sad and bitter pill to swallow in the late 60s, but it’s a far more depressing truth to see how little things have changed over half a century later.