In The Trial of the Chicago 7, the new film from Aaron Sorkin now playing on Netflix, Abbie Hoffman, one of the defendants accused of inciting a riot outside the Chicago Democratic Convention, scoffs at the idea that the trial is little more than a circus before a judge and jury.
He tells his lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), that "this is a political trial that was already decided for us. Ignoring that reality is just weird to me." Kunstler, attempting to give some heft to the proceedings, responds that there are criminal trials and civil trials but not political trials. He turns out to be wrong.
The same thought can apply to Sorkin's film, an interesting slice of history that ultimately feels both intelligent and commendable -- as a special episode of his famed show "The West Wing" would be -- but also merely a backyard game of political football.
With the incendiary clashes between protesters and cops in full bloom on the streets of Chicago during that transforming time in the late 1960s, you'd expect The Trial of the Chicago 7 to provide a reckoning of sorts. Instead, it bypasses the usual tropes about police violence and youth gone awry. The movie becomes a vehicle for Sorkin's high-toned dialogue and hunger for the big statement.
What is gained is a poetic look at one of the more disruptive U.S. trials of the 20th century and the need for free expression. What is lost is a deeper understanding of the charismatic, real characters and their place in history.
As far as the "7" go, Abbie Hoffman (played with smart-ass, comedic delight by Sasha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, also in "Succession" on HBO), are the leaders of the Yippies, an agitating group of free spirits who believe in disruption and revolt to gain attention. On the other side are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, who want to work within the existing system for change.
In the center of this cultural clash stand David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), an older conscientious objector, along with two laid-back academics, John Froines and Lee Weiner, who just seem to be along for the ride. This potpourri of personalities is joined by the leader of the Black Panther party, Bobby Seale (a searing Yahya Abdul Mateen II), who was only in Chicago for four hours to give a speech but is lumped in with the seven defendants.
The federal government, under new management in 1969 when Richard Nixon becomes president, wants to teach a lesson to demonstrators by putting these men on trial for inciting riots after traveling across state lines. Spurred by incoming attorney general John Mitchell, the government invokes a little known act that was once written to suppress black civil rights dissent.
Sorkin poses all this in the form of a question: How far is the government willing to go to squash free expression, especially from those who disagree -- in the case, a disagreement as profound as that of the Vietnam War. His characters provide brief, passionate speeches and highly literate conversation. They are Sorkin's marionettes in his cause celebre.
Played out in a downtown Chicago courtroom, they go before a justice with malice. Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) hands out contempt of court rulings against the defendants every time they yawn or scratch their heads. Frank Langella, a veteran actor who can bring sinewy menace, is a treasure in the role, a villain who in fact does turn the proceedings into a political circus.
The effect is surreal and makes for an entertaining time at court. Defendants are constantly being escorted to holding cells for daring to speak up. In a tempestuous moment, Judge Hoffman has Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, horrifying spectators who dredge up unpleasant images of slavery.
The movie loses some momentum since we know where the trial is headed from the beginning, as the defendants are railroaded and bullied in the process. And while many viewers know of the many lives lost in Vietnam and the reasons for the protests, the movie does not purport to be an urgent lesson about the need to demonstrate.
Few of the picaresque demonstrations are seen onscreen, and the characters convene with other protesters in a park setting that looks like it's shot at summer camp. With police in riot gearing showing up as adult counselors with night sticks.
Yet, even without Sorkin expanding the frame to offer more significance and clarity, the movie also does succeed because of Sorkin's wise way with dialogue. He draws out the differences between Hoffman and Hayden well. Hoffman chides Hayden for thinking that winning elections is more important than equality, justice and other idealized goals.
To which Hayden responds, "if you don't win elections, it doesn't matter what's second. And it is astonishing to me that someone still has to explain that to you."
Or take Kunstler's disgust at the whole justice system: "We've dealt with jury tampering, wiretapping, a defendant that was literally gagged, and a judge who's been handing down rulings from the bench that would be considered wrong in Honduras," he states in one weary address.
These civics and morality lessons are Sorkin's forte, the air he breathes. In his screenplay for A Few Good Men, he expounds via Shakespearean-level dialogue on the meaning of liberty. In his film Steve Jobs, he takes a small piece of the Apple co-founder's life and turns it into a morality play about family and fidelity.
These are both admirable films, but it is good to know what to expect from an Aaron Sorkin production. The more one looks, the less complex the films are; and the more one hears, the more one understands that these movies serve a more single-minded purpose, a graduate thesis on obligation and civic duty.
An impressive cast is at Sorkin's disposal in this, only the second movie that he's directed, after 2017's Molly's Game. The other A-listers in The Trial of the Chicago 7 include Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young, conservative prosecutor, plus a cameo from Michael Keaton.
And he does coax good performances from Cohen, who has the inherent puckishness needed for Abbie Hoffman, and Redmayne, who must show both sympathy to the cause of justice and a desire to glad-hand and compromise with those who disagree with him. Sorkin seemingly makes Hayden the gravitational center of the movie, both helping to start the riots and wanting to end them with respect for the rioters.
Like an episode of "The West Wing," The Trial of the Chicago 7 aspires to be more than the sum of its limited structure. That it doesn't always succeed doesn't always matter: It leaves with ideas, thoughts, admiration for characters.
In the case of this movie, some reviewers have mentioned that the historical record of these defendants is much different that what's in the movie. But even while Sorkin is better at showing archetypes than real characters who have motivation and complexity, there is a sense of ennobling in his peppery dialogue. As long as you recognize the limitations.