The Trial of the Chicago 7

 

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Aaron Sorkin directs a film on a subject that has fascinated him for years.

 
Trial of the Chicago 7, The

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin

 

Chance has to some extent played a part in it but there is no doubting that this film, which started out as a project for the writer Aaron Sorkin as long ago as 2007, reaches us at exactly the right time. Originally envisaged as a work for somebody else to direct, the screenplay that first emerged would be revised after various attempts to set up the film had stalled. The delay has had notable consequences and not only the fact that Sorkin is now in the director's chair (it is his second feature in that capacity following on from the highly promising Molly's Game of 2017). It is even more significant that when first conceived it was probably at heart an historical piece about an unjust trial in a past age but that it now comes across in its rewritten form as a film about today - and that's so regardless of the fact that it deals throughout with events that took place in Illinois between 1968 and 1970. In my view The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an uneven piece, but its themes seem uncannily pertinent to what is happening in Donald Trump's America. Indeed, that extends to the very latest events since Sorkin's film made me reflect on Trump's actions right up to his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

The Chicago 7 were white Americans who had embraced the counterculture of the late 1960s and were firmly opposed to the Vietnam War. With that issue in mind, they planned a peaceful demonstration at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention but it would lead to violence and they would eventually find themselves facing charges including conspiracy and incitement to riot. The Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, had in fact come to the conclusion that putting the blame on them and charging them was not justified. But then his successor, the Nixon appointee John Mitchell, took the opposite view and went ahead with an eighth man, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, accused alongside them.

 

Sorkin's film is set for the most part in the courtroom and adopts a serious, weighty tone. It's a style without fanciful touches and it carries with it a sense of veracity (it's quite possible that much of what we hear said during the trial scenes is taken direct from the court transcript but I have no specific knowledge about that). Aptly enough, the approach adopted is akin to certain films from an earlier age and that made me compare it with one classic work in particular, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg made in 1961 and now available on Blu-ray and DVD. That film, which dealt with the trial of Nazi war criminals, shares with The Trial of the Chicago 7 a concern with significant real-life events that on screen called out for a sober, considered recreation but even so there is one major difference between them: Kramer's piece featured representative characters whereas Sorkin's deals with real individuals given their actual names. Respecting that, the very talented cast assembled by Sorkin play as an ensemble giving us persuasive portraits but, perhaps inevitably, they are denied the chance to delve deeper into their characters to enhance the drama on a personal level.

 

Because of that, it is the general situation portrayed that has the weight. We see clearly how the hearing under a totally bigoted judge, Julius Hoffman, was indeed a political trial with the procedure in court as set up as the decision to prosecute in the first place. That the film is at its best here helps to encourage the unforced yet evident modern-day parallels. However, in other respects the film proves less strong that it should be. None of that can be blamed on the actors though. A uniformly able cast includes such British players as Mark Rylance playing the chief defence attorney and Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen as the two most prominent defendants and they fit into the American context with absolute ease - it should also be stressed that, despite his reputation as a comic actor, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, a Yippie type, is able to make the most of Abbie's humorous provocations without ever stepping out of character).

 

The weaknesses are down to Sorkin. At times one feels that he intermittently has doubts about the approach that he has adopted and thinks that he ought to pep things up. When Daniel Pemberton's music score seeks to do this, it merely sounds banal and what start off as reasonable brief flashbacks to illustrate what is being described in court soon become increasingly clumsy when they are elaborated and built up. They extend to shots of Abbie as an on-stage performer commenting on what is happening and on one occasion we are given three takes on a single line of dialogue. Late on we have a scene in which Rylance confronts Redmayne by testing him out with the difficult questions that he might face if put on the witness stand: it plays very much as a dramatist's invention. As for the climactic scene in court on day 151, it is given the big treatment and underlined by obvious music.

 

There is no doubt that making a film on this subject today is well worthwhile and much here can be applauded. Nevertheless, doubts accumulate over what might seem like small details but which do come to count. After all I cannot but ponder on the fact that Judgment at Nuremberg at 179 minute sustains its length with total success whereas The Trial of the Chicago 7 which is 50 minutes shorter comes to feel overlong.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Kelvin Harrison Jnr, Michael Keaton, Ben Shenkman, Noah Robbins, Daniel Flaherty, J.C. MacKenzie, John Doman, Caitlin FitzGerald, Meghan Rafferty, Alice Kremelberg, Wayne Duvall, Damian Young, C.J. Wilson, Juliette Angelo.

 

Dir Aaron Sorkin, Pro Stuart M.Besser, Matt Jackson and Marc Platt, Assoc Pro Sacha Baron Cohen, Screenplay Aaron Sorkin, Ph Phedon Papamichael, Pro Des Shane Valentino, Ed Alan Baumgarten, Music Daniel Pemberton, Costumes Susan Lyall.

 

Dreamworks Pictures/Amblin Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures/Pararmount Pictures/Rocket Science-Entertainment Film Distributors/Netflix.
129 mins. USA/UK/India. 201. Rel: 2 October 2020. Available in cinemas and on Netflix. Cert. 15.