Aaron Sorkin's artistic strengths are here slotted into the most basic form of Oscar bait.
- 🧑🏻⚖️ Mark Rylance and Sacha Baron Cohen deliver MVP performances.
- 🧑🏻⚖️ Sorkin's dialogue is as sharp as ever.
- 🧑🏻⚖️ The fast editing prevents courtroom drama from becoming stale.
- 🧑🏻⚖️ Any lip service to modern social significance isn't adequately explored.
- 🧑🏻⚖️ Feels positioned more to win award nominations than to make any artistic statement.
Fans of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s trademark style of glossy historicism, fast banter, frantic matched cuts, and heroic monologuing are probably going to find plenty to like in his latest effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7. In the broadest strokes, it’s a handsomely made film, capitalizing on talented actors in period-appropriate attire to dramatize the trial of eight men accused of inciting a riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention as part of a protest to end the Vietnam War. It is, for all intents and purposes, engineered from the ground up to be an awards contender, positioning itself to have as high a pedigree and profile as possible to have the largest number of nominations across the broadest swath of categories, and when taken in isolation, it likely deserves to take quite a few of those nominations, even prior to considering the film’s accidental timeliness with regards to police and state brutality against protestors.
But those individual elements do not make for a great movie when the result is as performatively hollow as this. The illusion of greatness only serves as shiny wrapping paper over Sorkin’s worldview that the messiness and evil of protestor suppression is simply attributable to bad actors in positions of power that can ultimately be rehabilitated by the strength of the institutions that we hold theoretical democratic control over. The seeds of a darker, more honest movie are present, but the goal isn’t to recreate reality for the purposes of edification or to draw historical parallels to modernity. It’s to declare the moral victories of the past as feel-good expressions of a prior generation’s contributions to progress.
Take, for instance, how the film treats the story of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Matteen II), the eighth man on trial, the only Black man, and the only man repeatedly and consistently denied to speak in his own defense during his attorney’s hospitalization. In isolation, his perpetual denial of justice and due process is an indictment of how Black people have been and continue to be held to different standards than their white counterparts, all under the guise of procedural fairness and judicial impartiality. But for as much hemming and hawing as Sorkin’s screenplay makes, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more than content to dismiss Seale from the narrative as soon as he stops being relevant to courtroom drama, boiling down his arc to a pre-credits title card and begging the question of what the purpose of that emphasis was beyond the trite observation that racists are bad.
Because Sorkin boils down his ensemble of characters into a collection of engaging personalities that create outcomes based on simplistic moral virtues and vices, he completely avoids questions of institutional prejudice in favor of making the people within those institutions transparently corrupt. Frank Langella plays Judge Julius Hoffman as so inherently biased against the defendants that he comes across as a caricature, which may be true to the actual Judge Hoffman’s actions but not to the man’s motives, personality, or place within the greater judicial system. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays federal prosecutor Richard Schultz, who speaks reservations about the role he plays in the trial but never earns the redemptive moment the cartoonishly pointed climax implies he has achieved.
Mark Rylance is the strongest arrow in Sorkin’s quiver, channeling just the kind of jaded underdog defense attorney Sorkin loves to valorize, but even his characterization falls short of calling systemic prejudice and oppression into question, filtering his frustrations with the actions of this judge and this prosecutor and relying on the benevolence of a surprise witness to be a symbol of the government’s good actors and best intentions. This reduction of people into good guys and bad guys in an otherwise neutral system robs the story of any teeth it might otherwise have, instead acting as a balm to state that, no matter what, justice will prevail, at least thematically if not in actuality.
If you’re wondering how the titular Chicago 7 are themselves characterized, it’s strangely unimportant to the film as a whole. Though supported by Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, and John Carroll Lynch, the internal strife of the Chicago 7 is boiled down to the eccentricities of Sacha Baron Cohen’s disestablishmentarian Abbie Hoffman and the modesty of Eddie Redmayne’s less confrontational Tom Hayden. Cohen is the comic relief highlight of the film, while Redmayne's passably blank lack of charisma is actually channeled to good use here, but their antagonism toward one another inevitably uncovers that they have more in common than they thought, unfortunately with nothing really gained from the insight. The characters may grow from this realization, but that does little for the story that is otherwise being told, giving actors opportunities to emote for awards gold without giving those emotions a purpose within the narrative.
Despite how negative this all sounds, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a nominally entertaining film, in no small part due to the snappy dialogue, editing, and performances that make Aaron Sorkin’s trademark style. But these have been slotted into the template of the most basic form of Oscar bait, appealing to older awards voters’ sense of generational self-importance that offers little in the form of artistic ingenuity, message, or meaning. It’s a film that begs you to break it down into its component, dramatic pieces, masquerading as art at its most meaningful, when in reality it’s simply window dressing on a store with nothing to sell.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available on Netflix.
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