The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (or TTC7) presents itself as an historical reenactment, and it is that to a certain degree.  Set during the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1968, the movie is actually an Aaron Sorkin greatest hits package, with a bit of Oliver Stone visual razzle-dazzle thrown in to emphasize both the anarchy of the riots and the absurdity of the trial afterwards.  Fans of Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat dialog will not be disappointed, but few of the performances stand out from the superficial treatments of their characters.  Unfortunately, the directorial missteps outweigh the few good choices made, and the movie comes off more as a one-sided diatribe than an objective examination of the events presented.  That the movie has a topical connection to present-day events some fifty years later does not give it a pass for its flippant regards towards history.  Recommended for Sacha Baron-Cohen’s performance only.

One of Roger Ebert’s best quotes about how he reviews movies is:  “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”  A movie can tackle any number of earnest subjects, but it doesn’t get a pass if it  doesn’t do so in a convincing or competent way.  TTC7 concerns itself with the players behind the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, as well as the trial geared towards holding them solely responsible for the riots that took place during that week.  In a troubling sign, the movie introduces the four main players in a way that resembles introducing contestants on a game show (or maybe a Las Vegas review):

Our first contestant is a liberal who preaches working from within the system.  For him, getting out the vote isn’t a hobby, it’s an obsession!  He’s from a well to-do family who definitely do not agree with him protesting with a bunch of scruffy agitators.  Say hello to Tom Hayden!

A close friend of Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis is another shiny white liberal from a good family.  College educated and pensive, his hobbies include organizing, writing the names of those killed in Vietnam into a notebook and getting his head cracked open by the police.  Hi there, Rennie!

Our next contestant is a “Yippie” from New York.  He takes nothing seriously, not even bathing!  Don’t let his curly hair fool you, he’s no bozo!  He’s a college-educated Jew who can quote the Bible.  Lookout folks, here comes Abbie Hoffman!

Jerry Rubin is definitely Robin to Hoffman’s Batman.  A fellow Yippie, he’s a sensitive soul in a denim jacket, looking for true love in all the wrong places, including the FBI!  Let’s give him a warm welcome!

Next up, David Dellinger may sound like a bank robber from the roaring twenties, but he’s actually a boy scout leader from the suburbs.  He’s got an all-American family at home, including a wife who looks earnestly and an apple-cheeked son who thinks the world of him. He even drives a station wagon!  But don’t drop your guard around David–he’s got a mean sucker punch!  David Dellinger, come on down!

Finally, our last contestant comes directly from the Black Panther Party.  He came to Chicago to deliver a speech and eat a pot pie, but he’s not leaving anytime soon!  He insists that his lawyer cannot represent him while he recovers from gallbladder surgery, but refuses to accept the representation of the perfectly good lawyer representing the rest of the bunch.  Say hello to Bobby Seale!

If you feel that I’m giving the above historical figures the short-shrift, watch TTC7 for yourself. Its opening montage shows birth dates being read on live television, post boxes being opened, sequence shows the participants getting ready to head for Chicago.  We see famous faces from the sixties: LBJ, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy speaking over rock concert footage.  Troops land in Vietnam while horns blare.  For me, the vibe of the opening was “protest as a game show”.  The Vietnam war may be a terrible war, but man, it’s a groovy war!  See at all of these crazy characters?  Let’s get them together to cause some mischief!

Sorkin does his best to include as many of the principal characters of the story as he can, but this results in superficial treatments of all concerned.  Two other men on trial, professors John Froines and Lee Weiner, have only a couple of lines and later disappear without a passing mention.  Hoffman tells them that they were essentially included so that the judge could look impartial by dropping the charges against them. In one of the better lines of dialog, one of them responds to Hoffman with: “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”  (The title of the movie was confusing for me, since the defendants on trial initially totals eight, then seven, and by the end is just five.)

Even with its two hours plus running time, I felt like I really didn’t get to know any of the characters involved that well.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an excellent actor who’s done interesting work elsewhere, is given next to nothing to go on for his take on Attorney General Richard Schultz.  He has qualms about taking on the case, but does it because it’s his job.  He’s a good dad (newsflash: he takes his two children to the park on the weekend), but he’s pretty vanilla.  The same can be said for Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler.  Why did he agree to take on the case?  Why do those he represents think so little of him?  His characterization comes off as an old hound dog: he growls a bit but rarely barks.

Sorkin’s direction provides no sense of time for the events.  The trial happened about a year after the riots, but characters talk about it as if it happened last week.  The trial itself lasted almost five months, and the occasional subtitle (“Day 157”) provides a reminder that things are taking a long time, but I never felt the passage of time throughout the proceedings.  The emotional toll the trial must have taken on all of the participants is never represented.

The trial scenes are interspersed with scenes back at the residence where the defendants are staying, nicknamed the “Conspiracy Office”.  The scenes at the residence come off as a narrative gimmick to have the straight-laced Hayden and the flippant and sarcastic Hoffman square off.  It’s clear early on that the two are sides of the same coin, so I didn’t think scenes with the two of them arguing their approaches to ending the war were necessary.  Naturally, we get a scene later on where the two profess their respect and admiration for each other, which also felt unnecessary.

Given that Sorkin made his name with A Few Good Men, I don’t understand why he didn’t just focus his film on the courtroom scenes.  Those are the scenes that bring most of the drama in the movie.  Instead, we get reenactments of the riots showing how the various defendants were involved.  In a strange lapse in judgement, Sorkin undercuts the weight of his reenactments by cutting his scenes with actual television footage.  This tactic seems to say, “see how faithful my reenactments are?  This really happened, folks!”

Another instance where Sorkin’s direction deflates the impact of the material is when Bobby Seale is removed from the courtroom, beaten and gagged, and then dragged back into the courtroom.  Sorkin intercuts scenes of Seale’s beating at the hands of bailiffs with scenes of courtroom observers shuffling nervously in their seats.  In my opinion, what would have been to stay in the courtroom and keep the camera rolling while Seale was taken out of the courtroom, then brought back in.  The audience would have understood what happened in the interim, it didn’t need to be spelled out in bold letters.  The tension produced from the duration of an uncut scene, played out in real time, would have been far superior to what we get.

As in real life, the judge granted Seale a mistrial, and we never see or hear from him again.  In the movie, Seale states that he’s only included with the others because, as a black man associated with the Black Panthers, it will make the jury more likely to convict them all.  In my view, Seale’s plight is more interesting than the seven white guys sitting next to him.  The movie spends time providing a modicum of a background and motivation to Hayden and Hoffman, but spends almost no time on Seale.  Clearly Sorkin has an affinity for smart asses like Hoffman and Ruben, but their well-intentioned shenanigans are just that.  Seale’s story is at a completely different level than the others, and I think was intentionally short-changed here, lest it take over the movie.

If this review feels like I’m anti-Sorkin, that is not my intent.  As a writer of dialog, he’s one of the best.  He wrote the screenplay for The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Malice and A Few Good Men.  I think his dialog is fine in TTC7, it’s his direction that’s misguided.  His appreciation for  intellectual sarcasm is at odds with the material.  And his propensity for rim shots (both verbal and visual) dissipate the serious nature of the material.  He also employs his trademark “two characters talking over each other” at the worst possible time.  Kunstler is confronting Hayden’s claim that he didn’t direct the protesters to riot, and instead of hearing each side, we get the equivalent of listening to the radio while watching television.  Since I couldn’t understand the dialog, this was one of the times I actually was glad that Sorkin reproduced the scene in question for us, so I would know what the two characters were arguing about.

In the third act, the movie makes a big point out of the fact that Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General under LBJ, declined to press charges against the Chicago Seven due to findings that the Chicago Police actually started the riot.  Based on the evidence provided by the movie, I wasn’t entirely convinced of that finding.  (In one incident, an unnamed protester clearly yells out “Take the hill!”.  In a later incident, Hayden definitely eggs the crowd of protesters into action.)  Regardless, I didn’t think the revelation from Clark’s testimony was Earth-shattering.  Wouldn’t the decision to either prosecute or not prosecute fall under “prosecutorial discretion”?

The movie’s ending just did not for me.  Sorkin chooses to show Hayden’s reading of the names of the dead as a triumph of confrontation over changing the system from within.  Sorkin is clearly reaching for the same “You can’t handle the truth!  You’re damn right I did!” high notes from A Few Good Men, but the reality of TTC7 speaks against it.  The closing subtitles tell us that the five are actually found guilty, then have the charges dismissed a year later.  I understand why Sorkin went with Hayden’s statement as the high note to end the movie on, but it really undercuts the reality of what the seven endured over a long period of time.

I have to wonder what an old liberal muckraker like Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon) would have done with this material.  Sorkin prefers to keep things at a cerebral level, instead of going for the jugular like Stone.  For a movie about Vietnam and protestors getting beaten bloody by the police, it is clearly conflicted with how to represent the violent acts on screen.  An example of this would be the riot in Hyde Park.  While showing us the police brutality of the conflict, the soundtrack is filled with action movie bombast, and we get scenes of Hoffman describing what we are seeing on screen.  A straight-forward recreation of the events in Hyde Park would have been much more powerful.  Or just having Hoffman or one of the other characters narrate what happened.  Instead we get both approaches at once, and the impact of both is muddled.

Maybe Sorkin should have done a movie just about Hoffman.  Only Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman leaves a lasting impression.  A gifted comedian and natural jokester, he’s a natural fit for Hoffman.  Baron-Cohen’s work usually focuses on crude humor, but interviews prove he’s a smart guy.  Hoffman gives him the opportunity to showcase his wit behind his comedy, and it’s a winning turn for him.  

Eddie Redmayne turns in a workmanlike performance as the earnest Tom Hayden, but there isn’t much to the characterization.  Redmayne plays Hayden as a “decent young man” who eventually loses it when he sees his friend beaten by police.  (I don’t know how he could see clearly what’s going on across a crowded field at night.)  Hayden’s change of heart is understandable, but it’s an obvious turn and lacks any perspective.  Redmayne is a good actor, but I never felt he should have won the Academy Award over Michael Keaton in 2015.  Interestingly enough, Keaton is included here as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.  It may be just me, but what Keaton does with maybe five minutes of screen time is far more interesting than what Redmayne does with his forty minutes.  (For an analysis of the screen time of each actor, see the link at the end of this piece.)

For the other actors in the ensemble, it’s a mixed bag.  Frank Langella camps it up as Judge Julius Hoffman, not the first time he’s done the “bloviating evil guy” role before.  (Remember Dave?  or Frost/Nixon?)  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance leave very modest impressions in spite of how much dialog they have.  With so many characters being included, the screenplay has little to no time available for motivation or characterization.  This is because TTC7 wants to recruit you to a cause, not to understand or care about the people involved.

Some reading this may think I’m giving TTC7 such a hard time because, as a conservative, I just can’t get my head around the liberal notions discussed in it.  Not true.  I’m not as conservative as you may think.  (I’m maniacal about recycling-just ask my wife!)  I believe the Chicago Seven were perfectly within their rights to protest America’s involvement in a war with a dubious justification and no clear plan for victory.  (That Nixon of all people effectively ended the war is truly one of history’s great ironies.)  Now that Vietnam is one of our trading partners, time has essentially rendered a verdict on the war as being completely meaningless.  The Chicago Seven were on the right side of history, and their story deserved to be told.  Maybe a limited series would have been better, where we could have gotten to know the characters better.  TTC7 feels like a Reader’s Digest version of the events, a haphazard distillation of what happened.  Maybe the future will give the participants a better movie.

Actor screen time data for The Trial of the Chicago 7:

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