In one of the most socially and politically fraught years in recent history, The Trial of the Chicago 7 could not have been released at a more apt time. Based on real events that occurred in 1969, the titular seven on trial were a group of men charged with inciting a riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In reality, none of them were even affiliated with each other, only united in their anti-war sentiment — put on trial as a united front to spread the falsehood that they were conspiring with each other.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film shows off his trademark quick-witted banter and pacing that make it a mostly entertaining watch. All of the actors give stellar performances. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin respectively, are standouts, as are Mark Rylance as the seven’s lawyer William Kunstler, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the additional “eighth” member on trial, Bobby Seale.
While it’s not wrong to include mild historical inaccuracies in the name of narrative filmmaking, Sorkin’s interpretation of the trial completely misses its mark. Though all of the characters in court understand that the trial is political, the movie argues that what ultimately matters is a depoliticised vision of the tragedies of the Vietnam War. In the movie’s climactic final minutes, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) stands up to recite his closing statement, reading out the names of the thousands of Americans who have died in Vietnam since the start of the trial. It’s an incredibly cheesy rendition in which the music of the score swells and others in the background stand and cheer. Even the prosecutor of the case, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) respectfully rises. This is representative of Sorkin’s desire to ultimately minimise the DNC protests as only a tribute to lost lives, rather than a revolt against government-sanctioned death.
Therefore, while the movie explicitly demonstrates the inadequacy of executive and judicial procedure, it ends up leaning on the more palatable tropes of good and bad. Some characters, like former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), swoop in in an attempt to save the day with testimony, while others like judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) are prejudiced and unfair. Of course, this dichotomy is symptomatic of many movies, and systemic injustices are difficult to represent narratively.
But a desire for an ultimately neat, feel-good story where good triumphs over evil weakens the movie’s real political thrusts. In a particularly emblematic moment, the more radical Abbie Hoffman asks Tom Hayden to justify his people-facing politics, asking “Winning elections is the first thing on your wishlist? Equality, justice, education, poverty, and progress, they’re second?” “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second,” Hayden replies. “And it’s astonishing to me that someone still has to explain that to you.”
But coming from a student protestor, these words make little sense. The initially peaceful protests at the DNC were to demand change and awareness outside the scope of elected officials because Hayden understood that voting in itself was an insufficient mechanism. So for Sorkin to characterise institutions as the be-all and end-all is incompatible in a movie about protestors fighting a fraudulent system. Though he intended to write a film reflective of our current politics, his liberal tendencies ring hollow when the very sanctity of voting and the peaceful transfer of power are constantly threatened in Trump’s America. Though the common refrain is that history repeats itself, it may make more sense to see 2020 as yet another moment in the continuum of generational unrest against America’s broken, corrupt government.
But ultimately, the film’s middling politics shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, has always been a fan of the status quo and the functions of good governance. More insidiously, one could argue that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is merely promoting what he has always believed to be true — that change is necessitated by the checks and balances of a system that fulfils its function of serving the few in power while oppressing the many.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.