Aaron Sorkin is not the name I think of when I think of political unrest, the counterculture, and protest movements. Sorkin, for the majority of his career, has been largely Capra-esque in his assessments of America, seeing the struggles but ultimately upholding institutions as good and just. Movies like A Few Good Men and The American President reaffirm a belief in our institutions, and The West Wing is essentially a fairy tale of good-hearted people committed to good governance. Sorkin does not seem like the obvious choice for telling the story of the Chicago 7, but his new movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 works to overcome Sorkin’s past rhetoric and deficiencies to paint a positive picture of protest while not shying away from its conflicting voices and the state-sponsored violence it incurs. There are moments, particularly at the beginning and end, where Chicago 7 stumbles, but for the most part, the courtroom drama is a compelling celebration of protest even if it falls short in capturing the racial and gender dynamics of protest movements.
Five months after the violent conflicts at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Nixon Justice Department decides to make an example of some of the protestors as a “fuck you” to outgoing Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). In September 1969, protestors Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). They were joined by Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had nothing to do with the protests and was only in Chicago for four hours on the day in question, but he was a Black Panther, so his presence was to “scare” the jury. Set against warring personalities among the defendants, the incompetent Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), and the institutional power of the government, lawyers William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) try to find any semblance of justice for their clients only to discover they’re being railroaded through a sham trial.
Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s first courtroom drama since his breakthrough A Few Good Men, and his new film almost plays like a rebuke of that story. Whereas in that fictionalized courtroom of A Few Good Men a small group of determined lawyers could get to the truth (which, it turns out, they could in fact handle), in the real events that inspired Chicago 7, there’s no justice to be found. Once Chicago 7 gets into a rhythm, it reveals itself as a stone-faced farce. As Americans, we like to see courtrooms as institutions designed to uphold the law, and the law is the foundation of America. When you remove the fairness of that institution, America doesn’t seem to matter very much. The trial becomes a crucible for the freedom to protest and America fails that test because…well, Sorkin has a little more trouble with that.
Before moving on, we need to talk about the various dynamics at play in Chicago 7. Sorkin, for all of his rhetoric and razor-sharp wit, has more trouble diagnosing the particular ills of our country. To his credit, he tries his damndest by showing the constant prejudice shown towards Seale, the only Black defendant, while guys like Hoffman and Rubin get to cut up and mock the proceedings. Seale is on trial because he is Black and a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and yet Sorkin struggles to do more with Seale than to use him as a symbol. While we get to see the competing viewpoints of Hayden and Hoffman or the uniqueness of a guy like Dellinger, Seale is The Black Guy, and Sorkin has a lot of trouble writing The Black Guy even though Mateen commands the screen every time the camera is on him. Chicago 7 grazes up against how the system doesn’t work for people like Seale, but it never hammers the point home because the film is trying to tell a story about a protest movement with white people at its center.
That’s a difficult spotlight when you’re trying to make a movie about now—Chicago 7 is consciously telling a protest story that reflects current protests in America—when the protests of the past several years have been led by either women with the Women’s March or by Black Lives Matters activists. In this way, it can seem retrograde to put seven white guys at the center of a story about protest. But to the film’s credit (and I’ll be fully willing to admit that I might be giving Sorkin more credit than he is due), the film is designed to reach out to the most comfortable of all Americans—white men. The argument the film seems to be making is that while our current media shows police coming after Black protestors, white men need to remember that their white skin will not save them if they disrupt the power of the state. For the “high crime” of protesting the Vietnam War, the state wanted to send seven random white guys to prison for a decade. People of color and women absolutely have it worse, but Chicago 7 argues that if white men think they are immune from the state, they are mistaken.
The other side of that coin is that this is a movie that largely belongs to white men as almost all Sorkin stories must (even Molly’s Game has a terrible scene where a white man explains Molly’s story to her). And in this frame, you have a film that feels kind of like empty calories. If you’re going to tell a story about the seriousness of protest movements (and Chicago 7 has more than a few shots of protestors getting their heads bashed in by cops), then it really needs to hit home in a way that the film never totally manages because it’s coasting on slick dialogue and charming performances. The film is pretty sharp on how it shows that protest movements are inherently messy by showing the competing views of Hayden and Hoffman, but beyond mining that for good dramatic conflict, I’m not sure what Chicago 7 does beyond arguing that protest is good and suppressing protest is not only bad but inherently leads to violence.
I enjoyed watching Chicago 7, which fashions itself as a true ensemble piece and ensures that no one character gets to steal the spotlight. Sorkin’s assembled a top-notch cast that does not disappoint, and the moment the film was over, I was eager to watch it again to see the great performances from Mateen, Cohen, Redmayne, Strong, Lynch, and Rylance. Sorkin’s dialogue remains as cutting and effervescent as ever. As far as courtroom dramas go, the film employs strong cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and editing from Alan Baumgarten to keep the action moving. It is an entertaining movie.
But given the gravity of the subject presented, the historical weight, and the relevance to current events, I’m not sure The Trial of the Chicago 7 leaves the impact that it needs. When you start your movie off with some odd music choices (Daniel Pemberton’s score has a jaunty tone while we’re reminded of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations) and then try to end your film on a rousing note, you go for a populist slant that betrays the complexities alluded to by the internecine conflict shown by your protagonists. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is kind of a feel-good movie, and yet there’s not much to feel uplifted about when you look at how institutional power responds to protest. Nothing was solved or changed, so the drama feels confined to the trial itself rather than taking a macro view of how this event shaped America or how it reflects our current situation.
The question of how we approach protest is an important one because it needs to be ingrained into our daily lives. I think even Sorkin would agree that our institutions have become infected with bad actors who seek to turn those institutions against the people they were meant to protect. “Protests are good” is a fine sentiment, but the culture is already there, and while Chicago 7 acknowledges that these protests will have internal conflict and face external violence, there needs to be more recognition that something has truly rotted America. Sorkin’s faith in institutions has clearly chipped away, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows he’s uncertain about what should go in its place.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available to stream on Netflix.