You don’t have to know a lot about the actual history that inspired Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 to get the sense that Aaron Sorkin’s version softens, tames, and fictionalizes these wild events of the late 1960s.
Sorkin starts by capturing various members of the seven — actually eight, including cofounder of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — right before the 1968 Democratic National Convention, allowing you to see in broad strokes just how different their politics are. Then it skips the chaos of the convention itself to take us right into the courtroom where they’ve been hauled up on absurdly punitive charges of conspiracy and incitement to riot. And why skip straight to the courtroom? Because that way, while people are testifying, you can cut to dramatic flashbacks of cops teargassing and beating demonstrators.
Sorkin is an old hand at creating crowd-pleasing dramas centered around trials. He got his start with A Few Good Men (first the play version, then the 1992 film). Then in 2018, his stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird broke box office records for a non-musical play with $1.5 million in the opening week alone plus $22 million in advance ticket sales.
But it’s more than the trial setting alone that calls attention to Sorkin’s ostentatious structuring. There’s the buildup of the big list Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) is making of all the American soldiers killed in Vietnam. It’s so repetitive that anyone who’s ever seen a movie can predict that this will be the big narrative payoff — you just know that before the film’s over someone’s going to stand up in the courtroom and read out that list and bring the whole house down. (Which in no way resembles the end of the actual trial.)
This follows Anton Chekhov’s famous rule for well-made narratives that stipulates a gun cannot be introduced in the first act or chapter unless it’s going to go off in the second or third. But Sorkin isn’t content to merely introduce the gun — he must have someone describe the gun in one scene, clean the gun in another, and load the gun in a third, just to make sure you’re ready for when the trigger’s finally squeezed at long last.
A lot of people love these Sorkinisms — critics can praise the showy evidence of his craft while audiences get swept up by the way he makes ideological piety and cornball sentimentality look serious. If there are tears to be wrung, Sorkin wrings them. If there is patriotic fervor to spew, Sorkin spews it. And if there is any way at all he can demonstrate that America is great because our system works in spite of a few rotten apples, Sorkin demonstrates it with all the aggressive verbosity of a used car salesman.
Most people reading about this farcical trial would come away thinking it demonstrates that, to say the least, the system didn’t — and doesn’t — work, an inconveniently un-Sorkinist sentiment. In fact, what made the event so epic was the way the eight — including Seale, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) — all found so many defiant and anarchic ways to prove that very fact to the general public.
But Sorkin’s triumphal ending, with the whole court rising — including, absurdly, the main prosecuting attorney played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt — as the names of the American war dead are read out is reminiscent of an old Frank Capra movie, right down to the judge (played with gusto by Frank Langella) pounding his gavel furiously and in vain.
Check out Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington if you don’t believe me. That 1939 film also demonstrates, in the end, that no gavel can quell a patriotic and jubilant chaos — that The People can overcome any number of bad apples, because the system works. Sorkin knows better than to mess with a winning formula — over eighty years later and this “Capracorn” film is still as moving as hell.
Of the actual events that Sorkin omits or truncates, the most shocking is the way the film represents the shackling and gagging of Bobby Seale. Seale had no involvement in the protest planning and was in Chicago only briefly, but got railroaded into the courtroom on trumped up charges. Refused a request to postpone the trial while his lawyer underwent surgery, and not allowed to represent himself, Seale appeared in court with no legal defense. His repeated protests to the judge led to perhaps this most infamous outrage in the outrageous trial: the three days that Seale was brought into court shackled and gagged.
In Sorkin’s film, the ordeal lasts about ten minutes out of one day of the trial before Judge Julius Hoffman is shamed into granting Seale a mistrial. Yet in the real world, the god-awful courtroom sketch of Seale bound and gagged as the trial went on for days had “the whole world watching,” and was referenced in many pop cultural works afterward, including the Graham Nash song “Chicago” and the Woody Allen film Bananas.
The deliberate expansiveness of the defense’s case included witnesses such as Jesse Jackson, Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, Dick Gregory, and Judy Collins, who was denied the right to sing Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” so she recited the lyrics instead. Some of Abbie Hoffman’s antics in the court are documented in the film, such as showing up with Jerry Rubin wearing judges’ robes, and when ordered to take them off, revealing police uniforms underneath. But his actual testimony was much wilder than shown in Sorkin’s film.
It’s very hard to believe Abbie Hoffman ever said some of the words Sorkin wrote for him, such as “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.” But he did say this:
I said that the Pentagon was a five-sided evil symbol in most religions and that it might be possible to approach this from a religious point of view. If we got large numbers of people to surround the Pentagon, we could exorcize it of its evil spirits. So I had agreed at that point to begin working on the exorcism of the Pentagon…
It’s perhaps even more angering than the many missed opportunities to recreate so many eye-poppingly militant and defiant and hilarious events of the trial that even the music in this film is so dull. Patently fake “hippie” bands at the demonstrations seem to be mouthing songs that come from a music library under the generic category of “Pseudo-1960s Music,” an option for indie filmmakers who can’t afford the rights to the real songs. If there’s one thing the 1960s had to offer, it was an incredible soundtrack. Why didn’t Sorkin and company pay up?
In spite of all this, the film is receiving a rapturous critical reception. As David Sims argues in a highly favorable review for the Atlantic: “Despite its period setting, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a timely and timeless message: that Americans can’t always count on their leaders to pursue the noble aims of truth and liberty.”
And that bland summation about not always being able to count on our leaders to pursue noble aims seems exactly right as a description of Sorkin’s feeble message. It’s weak, toothless, and wholly inadequate — both then and now.