Gary Raymond looks at the latest feature film from writer-director Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7, an energetic dramatisation of the controversial trial in 1969 of eight men associated with leading the anti-War movement against American involvement in Vietnam, a trial widely remembered as a Nixonian political witch hunt.
It’s a strange time when Aaron Sorkin is a divisive figure. As a writer, his highs have been very high indeed. The West Wing (1999-2006), now a little dated, at its peak reimagined the ambitions of television. His Oscar-winning script for David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), the story of the birth of Facebook, is a masterpiece. But his lows have been excruciating. His television follow-up to The West Wing was a facsimile of that style and structure. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-7) was a take on a Saturday Night Live comedy show starring Matthew Perry. It started promisingly but got tangled in its own feet before being cancelled after just one season of ultimately overwritten pretentious slosh. Next, The Newsroom (2012-14), a West Wing-style take on a prime-time news show, with Jeff Daniels as the Dan Rather-type liberal-Republican anchor. It was smug, also pretentious, and was the final say on a growing suspicion that Sorkin cannot write women. There remains nothing in his cannon to counteract this apart from arguably the overrated but brilliantly acted Molly’s Game (2017) and flashes of Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs (2015). You have to admit, his best work has the fewest female characters. Sorkin is good – very good, for the most part – at writing artfully about the rooms in which men make big decisions.
And so, with his new writer-director project for Netflix, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin should be in his element, as it’s a right sausage-fest. And he is. It’s a bravura performance from Sorkin, both from behind the writer’s desk and in the director’s chair. He has peopled his rooms of men with actors who bring with them their own kind of baggage, but who fit into the historical roles they are assigned with something approaching ease, if not typecast lubricant. Mark Rylance as the morally virtuous partially mumbling William Kunstler, Sacha Baron Cohen as troubled controversial genius comedian and activist who refuses to play by the rules Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as preppy poster boy Tom Hayden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as by-the-book smoothy Richard Schultz, John Carroll Lynch as gentle giant with fire in his belly David Dellinger, Frank Langella as a corrupt judge; it’s a great cast asked to revel in roles perfect for them each individually, and Sorkin has given them one of his best scripts in a long time.
And Sorkin doesn’t shy away from the fact he is delving into territory that for feature films has not been on trend for quite some time: the courtroom drama. Audiences loved these in the 90s, particularly of the John Grisham variety. But they seem to have been the preserve of true crime documentaries for some time as producers trawl through decades worth of treasure troves since cameras were allowed into courtrooms in the early 1980s (Ted Bundy’s trial in Florida was the first to allow them in 1979). But there are few set-ups more dramatically ripe for a good writer of dialogue than the courtroom drama. Sorkin has essentially been heading here all his career.
And he has picked an historical subject that drives a needle through American modern history in the case of the Chicago 7 (Sorkin emphasises with his title the illegitimacy of the trial of the eighth member of the conspiracy, Black Panther leader Bobby Searle, who, as a black man, was pulled in, as the film points out, to make the defendants “more scary” to the jury. In one of the most powerful sequences of the film, Searle is eventually given a mistrial, and the seven white defendants remain). By unpicking the complexities of the trial, Sorkin examines the entrails of America’s purported democracy, and the resonances with contemporary operations are obvious.
The seven were leaders of movements protesting the Vietnam War, all of them unaffiliated, but some of them working alongside each other heading toward a common goal. The tension that exists between these leaders and the American government is one thing, but the tensions within the group are another, as they battle with ideological and personality clashes. Sorkin presents them with his characteristic wit and showy intelligence. He can be guilty often of trying to make every line a zinger, but he seems to have hit a satisfying level here; the dialogue is delicious for the actors, but not too showy.
The chronology of the story is wisely chopped up and spread across the film for maximum dramatic impact, and some of the biggest moments of the Chicagoan riots (the defendants came together to protest the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic Convention) that spark the erroneous arrests of the men are narrated by the characters themselves. Here Sorkin is playing with the very idea of how we report controversial events, and later, when Michael Keaton’s cameo as former Attorney General Ramsey Clarke reveals a gut-wrenching bias operating within the system, we are reminded that the idea that political structures are only as good as the people who work within them is nothing Donald J. Trump and Mitch McConnell have tested uniquely.
Sorkin’s film is a cracking drama; it will push you and pull you, and you’ll admire the performances of its cast. He still cannot write women (here we have a paper-thin undercover FBI agent, and a sassy receptionist), but this is a film about political corruption, male egos, and the damning dances of the patriarchy; i.e. Sorkin’s bread and butter.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream now on Netflix.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.