After several decades as one of the most ubiquitous writers, producers, and directors in English-language television and film, what you see — and, more importantly, given his aural proclivities, what you hear — is what you get with Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing, A Few Good Men). Sorkin’s characters don’t just talk to each other. They speak past each other. They sermonize; they proselytize; they soliloquize. They have a specific point-of-view (white, male, usually liberal) and they’re more than eager to share it with anyone within earshot. They — and it’s a collective “they” since Sorkin’s characters onscreen tend to speak with one, uniform voice — always seem to be aware of their place or their potential place in history, expecting every single word, phrase, and punctuation point to be dutifully recorded by offscreen historians or chroniclers for future reference.
History Meets Aaron Sorkin (And Vice Versa)
The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin’s first film as writer-director since Molly’s Game three years ago, arrives not in multiplexes as prestige-level, awards-season fodder released by a major studio, but via streaming. (Netflix, to be exact.) It lands with all the import, self-importance, and self-indulgence of a typical Sorkin project, beginning with the real-life historical subject, the politically divisive federal trial of seven (actually eight, but we’ll get to that later) activists for participating in and/or leading the volatile, ultimately violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, Illinois. Like his Republican rival, the Democratic Party leader, Hubert Humphrey, vice-president under the outgoing president, Lyndon B. Johnson, staunchly supported the Vietnam War, a position that led to vocal opposition inside and more importantly, outside the Democratic Party.
After Richard M. Nixon’s presidential win, the new Attorney General, John Mitchell, instructed the Justice Department to bring federal charges against the nominal leaders of the DNC protests, including Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). With the exception of Seale, a Black Panther leader with only a tangential connection to the protests, the other, loosely affiliated activists collaborated in organizing the protests, making them easy targets when Nixon’s Justice Department decided to make examples of them, presumably to dampen oppositional fervor against the new administration.
The Counter-Culture Takes on the Feds
That’s all background, however, to Sorkin’s project. An old-school believer in the criminal justice system’s ability, if not to actually mete out an abstract form of justice, then to reveal fundamental truths about our socio-economic and political systems, Sorkin jumps headfirst into the trial. He leaves the events of the protests and their aftermaths for relatively brief flashbacks at key moments in the trial of the Chicago Eight. (Spoiler alert: Seale received a mistrial halfway through, exiting both the trial and the film.) The feds send two of their best criminal trial lawyers, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie), while the defendants rely on the Clarence Darrow-like defense skills of First Amendment stalwart William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and his second chair, Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
To his credit, Sorkin initially keeps his tendency for character speechifying to a minimum. The dialogue moves both the narrative forward while revealing the characters’ backstories, perspectives, and conflicts along with the expected anti-government, pro-demonstration themes typical of Boomer dramas centered on the Vietnam War. While Kunstler tries to keep Hoffman, Rubin, and their wrench-throwing, performative personalities from upending the judicial proceedings against a conservative senior judge, Julius Hoffmann (Frank Langella), Hayden emerges in Sorkin’s interpretation as the voice of white-male, temperate liberal reason. However, a borderline unconvincing revelation late in the film exposes Hayden’s actual role in the protests via a back-and-forth cross-examination between the defendant and Kunstler. Sorkin contrasts Hayden’s play-it-safe, go-along-to-get-along personality with Hoffman’s shake-everything-up approach. (No bets on which character Sorkin eventually favors.)
Sorkin Saves The Best for Last (But Not Vice Versa)
Sorkin saves the best, heart-tugging bit for last (a minor spoiler follows), elevated not through a barrage of words, but in the simplicity found in reading a list of names. Too little that precedes that final, cathartic moment, however, contains even a shred of the emotion or power of that scene. Sorkin’s rushed, perfunctory approach to the secondary characters, coupled with broad performance styles mixed with subtle ones, and Sorkin’s frustrating over-reliance on static shots and scene building, ultimately results in a static film. As a visual storyteller, Sorkin favors a style that too often borders on the pedestrian, plodding, and the prosaic. Focusing on only a handful of events culled from a complex six-month process doesn’t help The Trial of the Chicago 7, either (the opposite, actually). For once, a Sorkin project could have used more time (i.e., miniseries) to explore the intricacies, complexities, and contradictions of the real-life cast of characters and the historical moment they found themselves in.