The Trial of the Chicago 7
If The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like the kind of fare that might once have been prestige Oscar bait, that’s probably because it was intended to be. Doubtless accompanied by numerous speeches about how its subject matter is more relevant than ever. And maybe Paramount and DreamWorks, after more than a decade of development hell, hoped it still had a shot. Maybe, in a year with as little competition as this, it does. The picture finished up on Netflix, of course, which is a good fit for Aaron Sorkin’s lightweight but engaging approach. There’s nothing very much that goes beyond a practised eye for dramatically repurposed biographical fare, as you’d expect from the writer/adaptor of The Social Network, Moneyball and most recently Molly’s Game.
Sorkin’s also, of course, the brilliant mind behind The West Wing, which means his key gift is for politically vapid idealism, Waltons Mountain by way of Capitol Hill, and that kind of approach – cue stirring chords on the soundtrack affirming our collective values – is very visible in Chicago 7. Sorkin is very much one for finding the cherished kernel in material, not for propounding its aptness to cynicism.
He also is not a virtuoso director. Which is fine, few screenwriters are, and his fare is, at least, very writerly rather than stylistically reliant. It does mean, however, that there’s little finesse here, that dialogue and performance are everything and period atmosphere is very much secondary. This is in the John Lee Hancock school of auteurish acumen.
On the plus side, that means we dodged instigator of the project Spielberg’s patented brand of syrup; it’s easy to observe how the film was designed with such rudimentary manipulations in mind, although one might equally attest that Sorkin and Spielberg’s brands are naturally synergistic. The ’berg has, of course, been churning out vanilla, accolade-seeking biographical fare ever since the mid-80s, and it was only a writers’ strike that put the kibosh on this (his next film was the career high of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
His version would tentatively have featured Sacha Baron Cohen (when he was actually the correct age for the part of Abbie Hoffman), Will Smith as Bobby Seale and Heath Ledger as Tom Hayden. Subsequently, various replacement directors were mooted, including Paul Greengrass – ideal for fashioning an “authentic” piece of Hollywood whitewashing/fabrication thanks to his verité style – and Ben Stiller, probably the more interesting suggestion, although I don’t know how his larger-than-life tendencies would have fitted with the content.
Particularly since that content isn’t especially taxing. Because the most interesting tack Sorkin could have taken, rather than reinforcing – as, let’s face it, Hollywood is wont to do – our impressions of that decade, so extolling of it as a solitary shining beacon, when hope was in the ascendant and change truly was possible, would have been to dig in to an era of Tavistock-esque social engineering. Mark Devlin recently broached the protest movement in his Lennon at 80 podcast, whereby the former Beatle’s interaction with such revolutionary luminaries as Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and popular beat paedophile Allen Ginsburg was discussed. Devlin and guest Matt Sergiou consider the possibility, mooted by many over the years, that certain elements of the peace movement represented controlled opposition, designed to douse any hope that its aims might land with normies. This derailing was achieved through grand, off-putting theatrical gestures and statements, so making the entire movement look idiotic and out there, and distancing it from any broader meeting of empathy.
Hayden: My problem is that for the next fifty years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.
Devlin cites the infamous example of the plan to levitate the Pentagon, via Ginsberg leading a crowd in Tibetan chanting (there’s a Ginsberg cameo in the movie, played by Alan Metoskie, repeating “Om” outside a police station). And in fairness to Sorkin, the general gist of this is addressed in the movie, although without any agenda behind it beyond personal glorification; Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, as usual giving a performance where he appears to have just soiled himself – if ever there’s a big screen Some Mothers Do ‘Av Em, he’s a shoe-in) shows animosity towards Hoffman’s outlook at an early stage, warning “the very last thing he wants is for the war to end”.
Hayden thinks Hoffman is all about brand Hoffman. Sorkin being Sorkin, he indulges a couple of narrative flips in this regard, shallow Abbie revealed to care deeply (asked the price to call off the revolution, he replies “My life” – you can see the actual footage of this, which is inevitably less calculated). He’s also given good reason for his jestering (that when you have no money, he is free publicity). Earnest and buttoned-down Hayden meanwhile is accused of inciting the crowd to violence before it’s revealed that isn’t what he meant.
The main thing to note with these performances is that Redmayne, bereft of ticks and quirks, is left looking a little at sea. As for the general Cohen praise, I found him distracting in his age-inappropriateness (a decade-and-a-half older than his subject is Warren Beatty territory; he comes across – much more than Strong, also in his forties – like an antiquated hipster). Additionally, I’m not entirely convinced he’s much of a dramatic actor. He can do the quips and the stand-up, but he needs an extra dimension, and the overall impression is more of a caricature than a character. Of course, maybe it’s neither here nor there that Cohen isn’t very good; what’s significant is that he’s here in the first place. Which it brings us to…
As for the third man here, Sorkin deals Jerry Rubin rather short shrift. We lucked in when boorish oaf Seth Rogen dropped out and method-head Jeremy Strong replaced him, but you can see the inveterate stoner, incoherent mumblefuck doting over an FBI undercover agent being more tailored to Rogen.
Indeed, Sorkin’s approach is likely about attempting to delineate characters sufficiently; with Hayden and Hoffman designated the dramatic tension, pulling for the same thing but from polar positions, there’s little room for a third wheel. Which means Sorkin ends up inventing several really phoney scenes, such as Rubin being smitten with (also Succession star) Caitlin FitzGerald’s FBI gal, or the ridiculously contrived gallantry in saving a buxom protest chick from rape (that he somehow gets off for “assaulting someone who was assaulting someone” might be seen as leading into the next paragraph).
As Devlin reports it, Jon Weiner’s book Come Together details the claims of Lennon’s immigration attorney Leon Wildes (as told by an unnamed source who provided supporting documentation) that Jerry was a CIA Plant tasked with baiting Lennon in order to get damning information on his Vietnam activism. Rubin himself admitted “John considered the possibility that I was a CIA agent”. Certainly, Rubin’s transformation into a stockbroker in the 1980s (very The Big Chill) doesn’t exactly suggest an unassailable ethos (in contrast, Hayden, who married Jane Fonda for a spell, sandwiched between Vadim and Ted Turner – there’s a very definite “progression” for Hanoi Jane there – seems exactly the guy who would become a state senator).
Rubin’s alleged activities don’t necessarily reflect on Hoffman, of course; his comments rather reinforce the suspicions threaded together by the likes of Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, suggesting the rise of the hippie movement was anything but organic: “There were all these activists, you know, Berkeley radicals, White Panthers … all trying to stop the war and change things for the better. Then we got flooded with all these ‘flower children’ who were into drugs and sex. Where the hell did the hippies come from?!”
If the most interesting threads of the peace movement aren’t found in the movie, Sorkin manages to include some distractingly thudding ones to make up for it. The treatment of David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is particularly egregious. Dellinger was a conscientious objector during WWII, and Sorkin, seemingly intent on showing just how conservative he is in his liberalism, is bent on making it clear this was absolutely unacceptable. Most innocuously when defence lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance playing Mark Rylance as usual; he does it very well, of course) tells him he’ll have to talk to him about that. Most offensively when Dellinger objects to the judge in court and is restrained; the staunch pacifist is brought to violence, punching a marshal. You see? You see how wrong he was to have such values? It’s a sickeningly facile moment.
Other embellishments are less distasteful. Ironically for a movie about radicals, it’s in the staid manoeuvres of court procedure – and not even especially the wiseacre antics of Jerry and Abbie before the court – that the picture comes alive. This is Sorkin’s bread and butter as a writer. Thus, lead prosecutor Richard Schultz becomes a more sympathetic figure; just casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt is liable to do that, but he’s granted the insight that however smelly these reprobates are, they are not guilty of the charges presented against them. The climactic closing statement by Hayden, where he confounds the judge’s faith that he will go far by reading out a list of 4,752 troops who have died in Vietnam since the trial began is a neat fist-pumping capper to the proceedings, but is completely invented.
The rest of the cast are also very good. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, previously best known as the villain in Aquaman, makes the most of the showstopper role of Bobby Seale, bereft of an attorney and continually silenced by the judge. Frank Langella has easily the juiciest part as Julius Hoffman “a judge who’s been handing down rulings from the bench that would have been considered wrong in Honduras”. Michael Keaton also makes the most of a cameo as former attorney general Ramsey Clarke, one of the few who can contradict the judge with authority (“The President isn’t a client of the attorney general” he instructs of concerns over breaking attorney-client privilege). As to his investigation’s conclusion that “the riots were started by the Chicago Police Department” well it simply goes to show that honesty about such matters is an evergreen issue, what with Soros-funded BLM and ANTIFA.
Rubin famously said “this is the Academy Awards of protests as far as I’m concerned” – although Sorkin gives that line to someone else, since it’s a bit too sharp for his Jerry – but I’m not sure how much this will be troubling the real deal. Probably a nod for Langella, maybe Abdul-Mateen II, maybe for Original Screenplay, which admittedly has some choice dialogue (“You think it possible there were seven demonstrators in Chicago last summer leading ten thousand undercover cops in protest?”) And it’s also a good time to be reminded of first principles, in a year when the scoffing of such notions is coming back to bite everyone, that “These people had a plan, and a plan involving two or more people is a conspiracy”.