“You’ve arrived at a moment in history.”
So remarks a secretary to Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the soon-to-be lead prosecutor on the 1969 case 69 CR 180, better known as The Chicago Seven Trial.
Penned in 2007 for Stephen Spielberg to direct, The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s initial production was derailed by the Writers Guild Strike. Since then, the screenplay has been in Hollywood limbo, unable to net a director. In 2018, following the success of Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin stepped up. The upshot of the false-start and delay is that the film — which in another year would have been politely received but had little lasting impact — harmonizes with our zeitgeist. As Chicago 7 itself discusses, moments of historical importance are rarely calculated or foreseeable. More often than not, they are a collision of a very specific set of circumstances with more than a little bit of coincidence.
And what circumstances: Sorkin opens by introducing the members of the seven as they make their plans to travel to Chicago and protest the Vietnam War during the Democratic National Convention. Yippie Leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) aim for maximum disruption, arguing that a total short-circuiting of the government is required for reform. Countering them are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), heads of the University of Michigan’s Students for Democratic Society (SDS); they believe in the power of a peaceful protest and want to keep the focus on the toll of war. Rounding out the protestors is family man and scout troop leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and anti-war protestors John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins).
Also prosecuted was Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, continuing his hot streak after HBO’s Watchmen), who was in Chicago for less than four hours and was not present during the protests in question. Abdul-Mateen II plays Seale’s rage at being dragged into the proceedings perfectly. The unofficial eighth member of the seven, he’s not there because he was affiliated with the riots, but because, as a black man in 1968, he was an easy figure to demonize.
Baron Cohen’s Hoffman is a balance of his more austere and comical on-screen personas and Redmayne is well utilized. After The Danish Girl and his continued association with JK Rowling, he is unqualified to represent any progressive political figure, but his balance of vitriol and intellectualism is undeniably great. As an acting showcase, Chicago 7 is an unqualified triumph.
Sorkin’s dialogue is characteristically rich; even the smaller acting parts get plenty to chew on. The parallels between 1968 and now, however, necessitate that the film stands as a political object. With that criteria, things become more complicated.
With a resume that includes The West Wing, The Newsroom, Charlie Wilson’s War, The American President, and A Few Good Men, Sorkin is no stranger to political writing. He dives in headfirst; on the agenda is police brutality, racial prejudice, and miscarriages of justice. Plenty of time is given to flashbacks documenting the escalation of the protests and how they eventually broke out into riots. The question of guilt is a shadow across the proceedings. Are the Yippies and their radical politics to blame? Or is it the police, who responded with brute force? What about Hayden, who — incensed by the unprovoked police brutality — famously said, “If blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city”?
Ultimately, Sorkin does not answer his own questions, and his failure to do so represents Chicago 7‘s largest shortcoming: with a script over a decade old, some updates were required; too often is meat is left on its bones. In 2020, anything less than a full-bodied critique of policing, especially in a protest-gone-wrong scenario, is half-hearted. Sorkin is an accomplished screenwriter but the sum of his political ideology is the belief “democracy is good because it is good to be democratic” — well-meaning but platitudinal. A creative voice willing to push this story into more gritty terrain was needed.
Despite prominent flaws, Chicago 7 works. Its successes often seem the result of chance instead of design, but they are successes nonetheless. Take, for example, Frank Langella’s turns as Judge Julius Hoffman, who is both too incompetent and too partisan to effectively do his job. In another year, Langella’s larger-than-life performance would teeter on comically evil. But this year, with judges and lawyers on all rungs of the legal ladder actively miscarrying justice, and one of whom is running for political office, his performance is grounded.
Mileage will vary depending on your ability to appreciate Sorkin in full Sorkin mode. The film is loaded with some of his most openly preachy monologues that often halt the story for a diatribe on political justice. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. This is prime awards fodder, and as such likely to remain in the cultural conversation for some time. So too then, will the ideas it discusses. Whether you agree with what Sorkin has to say is one thing, The Trial of the Chicago 7’s ability to be a vehicle for meaningful debate is another entirely.