A Few Bad Men

In ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7″, Aaron Sorkin mansplains the 60s

I saw The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie. In this film, Aaron Sorkin takes a bold stance against the Vietnam War, nearly 50 years after it ended. If you want to listen to the creator of The West Wing mansplain the 1960s to you, then The Trial of The Chicago 7 is your dream project.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Running time: 129 min

Mileage may vary when it comes to public interest in the tribulations of Abbie Hoffman after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I worked as a reporter in Chicago for a number of years, so I probably have a more-than-average knowledge of the subject. Too many times, some guy stumbled around at a party, saying “here’s what you don’t know about Dave Dellinger…” The Chicago 7 were the subject of many a theatrical production in Chicago, a city besotted with its own radical mythos. This movie feels like something I might have seen in an Irving Park Road storefront in 1995, except with a bombastic, jittery score that has no 1960s resonance at all.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes a corner of American history that seemed like a big dramatic deal at the time, and turns it into an even bigger, more dramatic deal. Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee have done this recently too, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and BlacKkklansman. But Aaron Sorkin lacks the humor and imagination of those two modern masters. His script is a thesis-statement bludgeon, his scene-setting competent but obvious.

Chicago 7
Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, perfectly cast.

Counterculture always seems safe from a distance, so it’s no accident that the most radical characters in this movie are the most interesting to watch. Sacha Baron Cohen, perfectly cast, gives a funny and magnetic performance as Abbie Hoffman, dominating every scene and taking over the movie. Jeremy Strong, Kendall Roy from Succession himself, isn’t quite as good as Hoffman’s Yippie sidekick Jerry Rubin, but he’s still pretty entertaining . Mark Rylance, who could get an Oscar nomination for reading a list of COVID-19-related safety restrictions, rips it up as William Kuntsler, the Chicago 7’s radical lawyer.

There’s a typically effective cameo from Michael Keaton. And Frank Langella is particularly good and creepy as Julius Hoffman, the trial judge who set all-time standards for legal boobery. The fact that half the action takes place in a courtroom and therefore depends on transcripts keeps Sorkin’s script from being all walk-and-talk and speechifying. History grounds his worst impulses. And he does a nice job illuminating the plight of Bobby Seale, the Black Panther who got sucked into the trial despite having nothing to to with the protests in Chicago.

That said, a good chunk of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is watching Eddie Redmayne give a pouty lip as Tom Hayden, who receives such a hagiographic treatment from Sorkin here, you’d think he single-handedly ended Vietnam like Rambo. Maybe Hayden funded the movie. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts on some chunky glasses and makes constipation faces as a government attorney. People sit around a lot in hippie houses and talk about the revolution. There are some flashbacks to the cops cracking heads, which Sorkin includes because it’s relevant to the story he’s telling, but also as a faint nod to whatever the hell is currently going on in American streets. It all ends with an operatic freeze-frame and the obligatory “where are they now?” title cards. (Answer: mostly dead). Thank you for the lecture on the true meaning of democracy, Professor Sorkin. Will this be on on the exam?

Not watching

Even though Netflix will release it on October 16, I saw The Trial of the Chicago 7 in an actual theater. There’s a “limited engagement” so it qualifies for the Oscars. It will probably receive a bunch of nominations, mostly for the acting, but if it wins Best Picture I will eat my N95 mask live on YouTube.

When the lights came up, I looked around. There was one other person in the theater, a woman sitting about five stadium-seating rows back from me. Admittedly, one wouldn’t expect a huge crowd for this movie on a Sunday night in Austin, Texas, but it was still pathetic. Where were the people?  I would have had a better chance of contracting COVID-19 in the waiting room of an auto-parts store, or at Costco, or in my own house, or pretty much anywhere in the world but here.

I walked into the lobby. It was desolate, silent, no employees or patrons anywhere. The digital marquees were dark.

If the whole world is watching, they’re not watching in movie theaters.

This concludes my review of The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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