Those were the days
Aaron Sorkin writes highly entertaining “message” movies. The Trial Of The Chicago Seven is a timely and spirited cri de coeur about civil disobedience. It represents in a courtroom the two sides of America that are, as in those days, at loggerheads today. That is, the democratically-minded citizenry who takes seriously their first amendment rights and the idea of the US as a righteous democracy (what some aspiring fascists today consider “the far left”), versus the authoritarians in power and the racists who love them. The parallels between the tensions in Chicago in the late sixties and today’s protests are many, but the differences are what smarts.
Until the grisly murder of George Floyd galvanized a large swath of the American public to protest peacefully, liberals could pine for the sixties, when American civic mobilization was at its best. Until the Million Woman March and the shocking array of murders of Black citizens by the police, it seemed that our nation had forgotten its right to protest and preferred to get fat and lazy and watch TV, which is why are stuck with a nazi wannabe TV clown running for re-election.
Back in the day, the protests against the Vietnam war had leaders, and they were characters. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) was a character, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) was a character, attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) was a character, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) were characters. Today there are no movement leaders and no characters. Protests are hampered both by the pandemic and by the sheer exhaustion and PTSD that the Trump presidency has inflicted in the citizenry. The Trump administration’s egregious conduct should have this nation protesting en masse every day, but who has the energy? It’s hard to keep up with all the destruction. The internet makes people think they can protest with their thumbs and call it a day.
This courtroom drama is a classic Sorkin gabfest with fast-paced dialogue and shrewd dramatic turns. But just as in Molly’s Game, I wish that Sorkin left the directing to someone else. He is good with actors, but the movie feels clunky. As an exploration of a travesty of a trial (we’re not supposed to have political trials in the land of the free, as Sorkin drills into our heads), it manages to get a rise out of you. It depicts the outraged frustration ordinary citizens may feel when confronting authorities who abuse their power. The absurdist humor of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, a sort of yippie Abbott and Costello, is welcome (I’m not a fan of the solemn grandstanding of A Few Good Men). But Sorkin doesn’t quite commit to the theatre of the absurd vibe that the trial could use. At its worst, the movie resembles something out of network TV. The topic deserves more satirical outrage, more depth, and more subtlety, never Sorkin’s forte. He portrays the villainous behavior of the anti-democratic forces (John Mitchell, the US Attorney General under Nixon, Judge Hoffman, the goons of the FBI, the Chicago police) and the almost caricature-like portrayal of some of the hippie leaders in very broad strokes. The one decent American is the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is saddled with going after this manufactured group of activists against some of the constitutional protections he quotes but then seems to have no problem flaunting. He is the only supposedly nuanced character, the only one with moral qualms, but he comes across as a cipher.
Still, the flick is enjoyable, mostly because Sorkin’s writing has energy, and the cast is very engaging. Some of the actors do wonders with their thinly sketched personas. Michael Keaton is great in two scenes as Ramsey Clark, the former AG under Johnson. The great John Carroll Lynch is excellent as usual. Fans of Succession (the best show on TV today) will be delighted to watch Jeremy Strong transform himself from billionaire Kendall Roy to stoned hippie leader Jerry Rubin. Strong has a magnificent moment where he understands that he has been betrayed and he breaks your heart, just like in Succession, but with great comedic timing. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Bobby Seale, is riveting. Then the presiding judge enters the courtroom for the first time and, lo and behold, it is Frank Langella, who is in himself a human coup de theatre. He is fantastic as Judge Julius Hoffman, a very terrible judge. Langella resists the temptation to play him for laughs. He finds the casually, horrifyingly sinister in him, an awful combination of rancid humor, arrogance, racism, and blatant unfairness. If anything, Langella makes him look larger than life, almost heroic in his wrongness.
Others don’t fare so well. Baron-Cohen, who does resemble Hoffman physically, has a thick and bizarre Massachusetts accent that is not always intelligible, which is surprising for an actor who excels in exotic accents. He seems self-conscious and wooden. Eddie Redmayne, an otherwise gifted actor, feels stilted as Tom Hayden. Mark Rylance acquits himself quite well as William Kunstler, even though he looks nothing like him. Which begs the question: we don’t have enough American actors in this country to portray these iconic American guys? I assume this has to do with financing, but come on. A global conniption is in progress because it was announced that Gal Gadot, an Israeli, is going to play Cleopatra. Apparently, this exacting demand for verisimilitude does not apply to Jewish characters or to white American males.
Even with its flaws, The Trial of the Chicago Seven is at its best when its emotional engine is the abuse of power. It makes us question why we are not out on the streets like the hippies and yippies before us demanding to overthrow the pigs.