The Trial of the Chicago 7 pits Aaron Sorkin against his 1960s radical heroes

The Nixon administration’s legal persecution of anti-Vietnam War protesters makes awkward fodder for the West Wing castle-builder: how do you redeem a system that is broken?

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

▶︎ The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in UK cinemas and on Netflix.

Looking to Aaron Sorkin for political commentary is like going to Agatha Christie for a thesis on criminology, or Ian Fleming for insights into the Cold War. The world he has created is a little less easy to define than theirs, but it’s usually at the nexus of law, politics and media, and his stories play out in workplaces that have become his characters’ true homes.

The laureate of the professional-managerial class, Sorkin’s archetypal character is a ‘hotshot’ in either one of these interlocking fields, of somewhat humble origins, idealistic but unabashedly competitive, and a firm believer in credentials, though anyone who can speak Sorkinese has their part to play; and the repartee, along with his gift for construction, is most of what keeps us showing up, despite it all. Despite, that is, Sorkin’s tendency – at its nadir or zenith in The Newsroom, which ran for three series on HBO in 2012-14 – to see and present himself as a, you know, political commentator.

He has his work cut out making sense of the tale of the Chicago Seven – really Eight – because its real-life protagonists, radical leftists of the 1960s, refused to compete within the system, rejected credentialism, and were generally low on civility. But there is a shadow side to Sorkin that respects, if not total outsiders, hotshots who have gone rogue, or otherwise refused the mantle of the hotshot – and done big things regardless. Mark Zuckerberg, as imagined in The Social Network (2010), and Steve Jobs, in Steve Jobs (2015), fit this category, as does Molly Bloom, heroine of Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game (2017), an elite athlete with a killer GPA (whatever that is) who chose to run a high-stakes celebrity poker game rather than go to law school. 

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman

So it is that within the first few minutes of The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin’s second film as director, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) tells Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) that they’re going to Chicago to end a war, not to fuck around, and Hoffman replies that he went to Brandeis and he can do both.

Chicago was the site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and Hayden, Hoffman and thousands of others went there to end the war in Vietnam which Hubert Humphrey, the party’s likely candidate in that year’s presidential election, had vowed to continue. The city’s Democratic mayor made sure the protesters had a hostile reception, and early in 1969 the incoming Nixon administration – Humphrey having lost – decided to make an example of seven white protesters, plus Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, despite his marginal involvement. Thus the stage is set for a courtroom drama in which the trial is so rigged that not even the most brilliant legal mind, speaking the most fluent Sorkinese, could overcome it, leading eventually to a kind of narrative breakdown.

Mark Rylance as William Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden

The courtroom scenes are vintage Sorkin, brilliantly performed, and mostly funny, pitting the defendants’ unshowy lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) against the senile as well as biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), with flashbacks to the convention and occasional recesses in which the defendants talk tactics. Abbie Hoffman and his Yippie comrade Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) see the trial as a sham, and send it up for all it’s worth, while the painfully earnest Hayden simply wants not to go to prison.

The mood darkens when the judge orders Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to be bound and gagged in the courtroom – this after fellow Panther Fred Hampton was shot dead by the authorities – and Sorkin struggles to find his affirmative ending, going beyond the bounds of dramatic licence and narrative consistency by turning Hoffman and Hayden into characters from Sorkin’s career-making hit The West Wing (1999-2006). Hayden comes to endorse electoral politics, meaning the Democratic Party whose corruption was demonstrated at Chicago. Hoffman, meanwhile, is made to say that the institutions of government are good, just not the people occupying them – though for most of the film, as in life, Hoffman was an avowed revolutionary, seeking to inaugurate an anarchist or socialist utopia where no one knows your GPA, not to make a good system run better.