By Andrea Thompson
Some movies are bound to divide, and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will divide nearly all who give it a watch. If it’s less divisive than it would be otherwise, it’s because the material plays directly to Aaron Sorkin’s strengths. Perhaps that’s less surprising, since he wrote as well as directed. If he occasionally looks away, he could hardly be blamed, at least not all of the time.
In true Sorkin fashion, he’s less concerned with the infamous protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention than the procedures that followed when several activists were charged with inciting a riot. If violence is the point, it’s not the blood that flowed those fateful days wherein protestors were beaten, arrested, and tear gassed, but rather, the horror of the system that had clearly already decided the fate of the defendants.
That group is so compelling in part because they’re played by actors who command our attention as surely as their real life counterparts did. While most of them get their moments, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen who is the standout as a badass Abbie Hoffman. He not only gets in the best barbs, he’s the one who most fully realizes just what their situation is, and the stakes. Cohen carries it all effortlessly, with his comedic chops in no way underscoring the seriousness of Hoffman’s mission and mindset. Having never shown much interest in the youth of the nation, such an approach ironically suggests that the young should look to their elders for how to make change, especially since Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, comes off as somewhat ineffectual in comparison.
Such large personalities tend to clash, and Sorkin manages to showcase their conflicting approaches to activism even as they remain committed to unity. Dramatics such as a major fracture are absent, partly because such theatrics are reserved for the courtroom, and any kind of serious parting of the ways is unthinkable due to the outrageous bias within it, which tends to force people to band together in the face of a common foe.
Make no mistake, Judge Julius Hoffman is against them, and Frank Langella uses his sinister cinematic history to great effect. Hoffman is never cartoonish, and he’s all the more frightening for it as a man who has so little respect for those he deems unworthy of a fair trial he hardly bothers to conceal his intent to ensure that the process is rigged as much as possible. He’s the worst bad cop in a movie full of them, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the only well-meaning one, who reluctantly agrees to do the job tasked to him even though he’s (the only one really) fully aware of the flimsiness of the charges and the implications. Even Sorkin needs a good cop, since his Gordon-Levitt’s real life counterpart was described as a pit bull in the courtroom.
Where Sorkin flinches is where many white people would flinch also, and Netflix follows suit. The service doesn’t play up sensationalism nearly as much as our other sources of entertainment, but even they turn away from the violence Judge Hoffman inflicted on Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the only Black defendant, and the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Seale was charged despite only speaking in Chicago for a few hours, and was denied counsel as well as other basic rights. That he would protest such treatment is a given, and Hoffman responded by ordering Seale to be bound and gagged.
There’s a reason Netflix only shows him being cuffed to his chair and men restraining him in the trailer, and why Sorkin depicts this injustice as a brief occurrence. In reality Seale was apparently bound and gagged for days, yet struggled to make himself heard the whole time, all while still attempting to make notes on a legal pad. Despite the realism of the injuries inflicted on many protestors, it’s shrewd that this is the image withheld, which is justly disturbing and far too real about how much harder the system comes down on Black bodies and the greater inherent risks involved for those who choose to oppose injustice.
Thank goodness for Sorkin’s gift for dialogue, since what could be overwrought becomes righteous anger, and the liberties he took go down smoother than they should. Other components which could feasibly show cracks in the facade, such as female protagonists, are notably absent, and even cliches such as the star witness that arrives just in time to reveal all are undercut by the judge’s refusal to allow them to actually speak before a jury. When all is said and done, Sorkin’s real sympathies here lie with the fallen, with those who pay the ultimate price for the hubris of leaders more concerned in scoring political talking points than valuing human lives. Such righteousness becomes hard to resist, and it’s one impulse we shouldn’t try to.