Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Frank Mankiewicz once described Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 as “the least factual, most accurate account” of that election and the years that led up to it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, by contrast, not only the least factual account of that trial and its participants, but also the least accurate. I would call it a piece of political propaganda if I could only figure out what Sorkin was attempting to propagandize. His rewrites of history do give us a few clues, though.
There’s the scene, for example, in which he has Abbie Hoffman extol the virtues of our American institutions and blame their failings on a few bad actors. And hey, you may agree with that notion. I’m not here to argue whether that’s an accurate
assessment of things. But if you’re going to put those words in anyone’s mouth, Abbie Hoffman’s would be the last lips through which they should pass.
Sorkin would have us believe that Hoffman actually said, “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people.” The closest Hoffman came in the trial to saying anything resembling that was, in fact, “Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.”
The problem is that Sorkin simply doesn’t understand the very real humans on which his characters are based and whose names they carry. Further evidence of this is the fact that he has radical pacifist David Dellinger punch a bailiff right in the middle of the trial. Is it a great dramatic
CHICAGO 7 AT A GLANCE
Aaron Sorkin’s film makes for better courtroom drama than his A Few Good Men but plays too fast and loose with history and seems tone deaf to the personalities of the actual protagonists.
Warmed-up colors and cranked contrast give the stylized cinematography a film-like look.
The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is center-channel heavy, aside from the forgettable score.
moment? Sure. But the moment fist contacted face, any similarities between the real Dellinger and the one portrayed by John Carroll Lynch (quite well to that point) became null and void.
And, look, I understand that in compressing a five-month trial into a two-hour movie, some liberties are going to be taken. Eliding always involves some measuring of editorializing. But if you’re going to invent dialogue (and actions) for the purposes of dramatization, it’s important to at least be true to the character of the people being fictionalized. And at least with Hoffman and Dellinger, Sorkin betrays their principles to support his ideology (nebulous though it may be).
In the case of Dellinger, I think that probably boils down to the fact that a neoliberal like Sorkin can’t wrap his brain around radical pacifism, so he has to portray Dellinger as a bottled-up Nazi-puncher wannabe who simply controls his urges. And
that’s not a knock against neoliberals; it’s an indictment of Sorkin for his inability to view things through any lens other than his own.
Really, the only character he comes close to getting right is Tom Hayden, played wonderfully by Eddie Redmayne. Actually, to call out Redmayne’s performance alone would be to slight the excellent work done by the rest of the cast, all of whom shine. It’s just a shame they’re given such flawed characterizations to work with.
But it isn’t merely flawed characterizations that drag The
Trial of the Chicago 7 down. Sorkin over-sensationalizes certain aspects of history and bowdlerizes others. He reduces Bobby Seale’s ordeal, in which he was gagged and chained to a chair for three days of the trial, to a few seconds of indignity. Because to portray the events as they actually happened would be to give some small measure of ammunition to those who argue that our criminal justice system is fundamentally and systemically flawed, and Sorkin just can’t have that. Likewise, the scene of the sentencing of the seven remaining defendants is such a complete fabrication that I don’t even know where to begin picking it apart.
None of this really makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a bad movie, per se. As a purely fictional courtroom drama, it’s actually a lot more compelling than the other big litigation-porn picture for which Sorkin is known, A Few Good Men. As mentioned above, the performances are stunning across the board, especially that of Sacha Baron Cohen, who captures the mannerisms of Abbie Hoffman brilliantly.
At any rate, if you approach The Trial of the Chicago 7 as pure fiction, it’s actually one of the better-made courtroom dramas I’ve seen in quite some time, and Sorkin is proving himself to be quite the actor’s director. There are also a handful of really great scenes sprinkled throughout the film, such as one in which Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden bicker about the relative merits of electoralism versus mobilization. That exchange, like so many other aspects of the film, draws strong parallels between the political environments of the late ’60s and today.
The problem is that Sorkin so unartfully forces those parallels that it all feels a little too pat. And, ultimately, I think that goes back to the point I started off with: He just doesn’t understand the Left. He’s so committed to the establishment ideology of “My side is the good guys and the other side is the bad guys, and the system will all work perfectly if my side can just defeat the other side” that he can’t help but view the world through such Blue-tinted glasses. And there just isn’t any place for the Left in that worldview.
Despite all that, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an interesting film to look at. The cinematography is quite stylized, and the ArriRaw footage (captured at 4.5K) has obviously gone through some film-look processing. Contrasts are cranked to just this side of black crush (and probably would have crossed that line if not for the expanded dynamic range of Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation) and the colors have obviously been warmed up a good bit (although there’s a lot of warmth in the footage already, given that it was either shot with natural light or made to look like it was). The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is largely a center-channel-heavy affair, aside from the forgettable score.
You’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about The Trial of the Chicago 7 in the coming weeks. It has received all manner of Golden Globes nominations and will likely be the talk of the Oscars as well. That’s the only reason I’m reviewing it now. Knowing how Hollywood works, it’ll no doubt do well at both awards ceremonies. Truthfully, though, I think its accolades say more about the sorry state of cinema over the past year than anything having to do with this film on its own merits.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.