Richard Schultz illuminate Tom Hayden for draught demons!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

People seem to enjoy giving Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin grief, and I’m not entirely clear on why. Obviously as a screenwriter, not all of his words are of equal worth, but his success rate is pretty impressive: A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, and Moneyball, not to mention his TV work on “Sports Night,” “The Newsroom,” and the gold-standard “The West Wing.”

Even his first film as a writer/director, Molly’s Game, had its moments. Maybe it’s his string of successes that have irked people in some way. Or perhaps it’s his skill at distilling a disjointed series of facts into a few key phrases, thus leaving little room for subtlety and smaller details that help illuminate other screenplays. Returning to the director’s chair, Sorkin has put together one of his finest efforts as both a writer and visual artist: The Trial of the Chicago 7, which sees Sorkin back on the scene of his earliest success, the courtroom (as was the primary setting of his hit play A Few Good Men).

Sorkin isn’t interested in simply unspooling the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was filled with both peaceful protests and more violent ones. Even as it happened, the questions were always, Who started the violence, and who encouraged it? With chants of “The whole world is watching” echoing through downtown Chicago, police and the National Guard seemed ready to tussle, while the organizers of various, unrelated protests had varying opinions on how best to resist. Instead, the filmmaker holds off on showing those events, jumping from the brink of violence to the court case many months later in which protest leaders like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and others were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines for the purposes of inciting riots. The trial was a circus for many reasons, from the refusal of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, HBO’s Watchmen series, Aquaman, Us) to take part in the proceedings since he wasn’t even a part of the protests (he flew into Chicago for a only a few hours to give a speech) to one bad and clearly biased decision after another by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

The court case has been covered in made-for-TV movies and transcript readings over the years, but Sorkin’s telling seems uncannily relevant. The issues may be different (primarily anti-Vietnam War protesting in 1968), but the visuals of protestors and police and tear gas and outrage seem strangely familiar. What carries the film are the sometimes genius performances by nearly every player on display, but they’re reciting Sorkin’s words (as well as the words of their real-life counterparts) and that combination just clicks and moves and sometimes ignites.

There’s an early scene that sets the tone involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz meeting with the new head of the Justice Department (under Nixon) John Mitchell (John Doman), who seems more miffed that his predecessor, Ramsey Clark, waited until the last second to resign before Mitchell took over. He considered this an insult, and the entire trial might have stemmed from that slight, since Clark didn’t think any federal charges against the Chicago 7 were necessary. And it’s in that spirit of idiotic grudges that the months-long proceeding takes place.