The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Dir. Aaron Sorkin. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance

Spoilers for this recent release, but as ever for movies based off historical events, Wikipedia exists, so…

I read seven or eight reviews of this movie before I had a chance to see it, but very few of them get further into David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) beyond noting that he is one of the eight men put on trial for crossing state lines to incite a riot in Chicago. He is an unusual fit among the seven men remaining on trial once Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is released from his physical restraints and from the courtroom generally. The rest are younger men, and they are younger men specifically of that time. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of Students for a Democratic Society represent responsible liberalism in Trial, and Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong) are the avatars of the purposefully ill-defined “cultural revolution.” They are all emphatically in their late twenties, early thirties. What has radicalized them, primarily, is the Vietnam War, and they come to Chicago in order to protest Vietnam. When Dellinger was their age, he was a conscientious objector to World War II. He is the only one of the four with a wife or family, the only one for whom Vietnam is not a first step but a next step. Thus, he is the only one whose principles appear to transcend the present moment; he has nonviolent resistance in his heart, and it is fundamental to his presence in Chicago.

At one point in the trial, Dellinger’s patience breaks. At this point the list of people on the Chicago 7’s side who have broken courtroom etiquette in some form or another just about outweighs the number who haven’t. In plain speech he castigates the judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who from the beginning has made it clear that he intends to have the book thrown at the defendants. If you’re so sure we’re guilty, Dellinger demands, then why don’t you actually let us have a trial? Marshals are directed to him. You don’t have to hold my arm, Dellinger says to one of them a couple times. Then one sneaks up on his right and grabs his arm, and Dellinger cold-cocks him. The only one of the Chicago 7 (plus Seale) who actually resorts to physical violence in the courtroom is the one who professes nonviolence, the one who would not even advise others to take up arms against Hitler’s Germany. There were other moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 that I found pretty stupid, but this was the first one that made me angry. It reminded me of a moment that almost singlehandedly ruins a much better movie than this one, William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion. In that movie, Dorothy McGuire’s character is the strictest Quaker of the bunch, absolutely against any kind of physical violence. She is not the only one who succumbs, and in fact is merely the last of the Birdwells to put up her dukes. In a moment of fear for a pet goose, she hits a soldier with a broom to keep her critter safe; naturally this sends shockwaves of despair through this nice woman who had been so carefully covenanted. It’s a cheap moment in Friendly Persuasion, to be sure, as it’s difficult not to read that moment as a lazy statement about being forced to drop our hoity-toity morals so we can roll up our sleeves to get the real work done. (Meanwhile, Gary Cooper uses limited violence in self-defense against a Confederate soldier; he compromises his moral code for something much more serious than a goose, so in the eyes of the film, he’s not just doing something all right but urgent, maybe even overdue.)

The cynicism of that moment in Friendly Persuasion is complexity itself compared to Dellinger laying out that marshal. It’s a moment which exists in a vacuum, serving only to manufacture a tawdry little drama. Is there really a moral debate happening inside David Dellinger at this moment? Are things so bad that the seventh or eighth most important person in this movie needs such a moment to highlight his frustration? (Is there any other way to know that a man in the late stages of a months-long trial and facing ten years in prison for a crime he never committed in front of a judge who is practically aroused by the idea of putting him away might be vexed beyond all belief? Say, did I just answer my own question?) Or is it just…dramatic. This is the problem with The Trial of the Chicago 7, deep down in its bones, beyond whatever animus one might have against Aaron Sorkin, Film Twitter’s Jonathan Franzen. The issue isn’t that the movie is corny, or that it’s too eager to hew along crowd-pleasing, simplistic lines; it’s not the politics of the movie which strike me as so retrograde that they could torpedo the entire picture. This movie relies on moments like Dellinger’s breaking point as intellectual keystones when they couldn’t be less intellectual. The movie really seems to believe that merely by presenting two sides of the coin, as if presentation were the same as examination, that it’s doing some kind of rigorous analysis. The movie doesn’t really examine whether or not Dellinger’s nonviolent philosophy is effective, nor does it even wonder if Dellinger’s pretty sweet punch is as threatening to his psyche as Eliza Birdwell’s swipe with a broom was to hers. It’s just soap opera stuff, which is fine for what it is, but there’s nothing else about the trappings of Trial which make one believe this is supposed to be soap opera material.

All it is is Sorkin’s preoccupation with “What kind of day has it been?” in a different form. The same goes for the way Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented, the way that Hoffman’s scatterbrained politics contradict Hayden’s liberal realpolitik, though of course Hayden is much closer to being culpable for the riot than Hoffman ever is. I don’t know that it’s necessary for Sorkin to even come down one way or another to make these examinations worthwhile, but I do know that this movie’s absolute superficiality is most evident and most repulsive when it sneers at the pretension of a nonviolent man’s beliefs. It’s a very Sorkin moment. The man only has so many tricks in his writing anyway—surprise French, men demeaning women for Humor, “serve at the pleasure of,” a Gilbert and Sullivan fixation even I think is bizarre, and so on—but the most obnoxious of them all is an inability to make a point without putting a straw man on screen. This stooping to make a point by making someone act ridiculously so the point can come off is quintessentially him, and it is one of the several reasons why I find it baffling that this guy is put up as one of modern Hollywood’s great writers.

It’s worth nothing that the real Dellinger didn’t punch anyone during that trial. I yield to no one in my belief that we should be willing to play fast and loose with interpretations, but there’s something really offputting about the fact that Sorkin has to borrow a real person to make the point he wants to make about how both extremes aren’t workable, or how we’re all just human beings and we can all be driven to do things we regret. It was one thing to watch like, Toby or Josh give Ainsley Hayes a hard time about stuff in order to make sure the right punchline would come down, because that tends merely to elicit a big sigh about these people who never existed and have no historical weight. It’s quite another to watch Sorkin take this real person who was on the right side of history in the face of enormous pressure and decide, “But it would be a lot more interesting if this man whose rock-solid principles guided his incredibly important work were to just like, drop them for a second.”

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a sort of blandly annoying movie for a while, but it doesn’t become obnoxious until Bobby Seale is given his mistrial and jettisoned rapidly from the movie. Abdul-Mateen is a good actor and he is emphatically not the problem—they’re all good actors, that’s why this will win Best Picture—but you can tell that the picture is weighing the importance of Bobby Seale’s presence as symbolically as the Department of Justice was in including him in the first place. There’s the obvious structural issue: Seale was only in Chicago for four hours, and so he is not part of either of the two really important flashbacks or the numerous minor flashbacks which undergird the movie’s drama. Furthermore, as long as Bobby Seale is sitting there in the courtroom without legal counsel, Trial has to engage with the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights movement, the murder of Fred Hampton. The movie is not really interested in those things; it is interested in the conflict between Hoffman and Hayden, the absolute dearth of integrity in the judge, Schultz’s increasing respect for the defendants, Bill Kunstler’s (Rylance) practical disillusionment, what the trial was “really about” in reference to the Vietnam War. I know this because the movie absolutely erupts into action once he’s gone. Hayden pretends to go on the stand and gets his butt handed to him by Kunstler in one of those scenes where the characters say what happen and then we watch it happen in flashback; in another scene which does not actually impact the trial, former attorney general Ramsey Baker (Michael Keaton) testifies without the jury present that his Justice Department found that the Chicago police started the riot, not the so-called Chicago 7; Hoffman gives measured and slightly boring testimony under Schultz’s cross-examination. Perhaps most importantly, it turns out that Hoffman respected Hayden the whole time except for his use of “vague noun modifiers” in his writing. (There’s a subspecies of nerd that looks on the “vague noun modifiers” stuff as evidence of witty screenwriting, just like there’s a subspecies of nerd that posts screencaps of MCU movies and says “these have unbelievable cinematography,” and it’s tough for me to decide which is more odious.) In short, the movie packs an awful lot of stuff into its long stretch run, and it needs Bobby Seale out of it so we can give our whole attention to the Chicago 7 instead.

One is a little curious why Seale and what he represents are less interesting to the movie than, say, making sure that we see Schultz (the only other parent whose kids we see among the principals) as a basically humane guy tasked with doing an unsavory job. We watch Kunstler rack up contempt of court charges like Seale does, but his are given more weight by the movie. When Seale does return to the courtroom bound and gagged, it’s ameliorated fairly quickly by Schultz, who talks Judge Hoffman into a mistrial for Seale as Kunstler and Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) tell Hoffman how racist he is. In that moment, Seale is a racism prover, not a person. Kunstler and Weinglass aren’t racist. Hoffman is racist. The marshals are racist. Most importantly, Schultz is not. (I mean, the man intends to send innocent people to jail knowing there’s no real case against them, and he’s sat around and abetted this crooked judge, but he has two little girls and he doesn’t want an African-American man tied up in the courtroom, so he’s decent, y’know?) Once again, Sorkin has altered his facts a little bit in order to suit the drama. It took days of a bound and gagged Seale in the courtroom before his case was severed from the other seven; it takes a bare few minutes in Trial. We can feel the movie’s impatience with this plot point, the way it can’t wait to get it over with, and most of all, how it intends to use Seale as prop to cast down Judge Hoffman and raise up Richard Schultz.

[This is more an aside than anything else, but I look forward to all the people who were upset at The Irishman for not including women in more prominent/vocal roles to be similarly aghast at the treatment of women in Trial. The biggest role for any woman in this movie is that of Daphne O’Connor (Caitlin Fitzgerald), an undercover FBI agent who gets in close with Jerry Rubin by picking him up at a bar. The second-biggest role belongs to Bernardine (Alice Kremelberg), the secretary where the bailed-out Chicago 7 stay and whose biggest moment in the movie is to tell some crank caller that Black men do sex better than white men, but it’s not even because of the stereotypical endowment…it’s just better. Again, I assume the Discourse, famous for its sense of proportion and understanding of context, will get right on this.]

The acting is good, in that sort of competent way one expects from movies like this to have good acting. This isn’t to say that anyone gets more than two notes to play, but Redmayne is perfectly adequate in his preening prudish position just as Baron Cohen is good at being dismissive and ironic just as Rylance is good at being exhausted and moral just as Abdul-Mateen is good at being strident and precise. To me, the standout of the movie is Jeremy Strong, not because what he’s doing as Jerry Rubin is exactly like, “great acting” or something, but because he’s the only one who feels like he’s playing a guy as opposed to some historical edifice or line of dialogue. There are times when Sorkin can’t help himself with Rubin—there are some dialogue cut-ins that Strong can’t make natural, and that scene where he talks to O’Connor about the history of the Tom Collins has serious “I’ve had this in my Notes app since 2013 and I couldn’t figure out where to use it until now” energy—but on the whole that Zonker Harris vibe that Strong has is at least different. For a movie about dissenters and radicals, shouldn’t more of them feel like that?

3 thoughts on “The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

  1. Just watched this and came back to your review. I enjoyed the film more than you did, but your comments also made me think about it more, and I appreciate the time you spent writing and posting it. Thanks.

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