Fiery rhetoric. Conflicting politics. Angry activists. Heated demonstrations. Violent police clashes. Government subterfuge. Duplicitous judges… The anti-war uproar of the late ‘60s is so relevant today. One particular incident pulls all those volatile elements under one roof, into one courtroom: The historic Trial of the Chicago 7.
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin won a Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network and marked his directing debut with Molly’s Game, a film about a woman who ran high-stakes poker games. Both projects were based on true stories, which would lead audience’s to believe that fact-based films are Sorkin’s thing. They’d be right. Here, he pulls together the bits and pieces, participants and locations, rivalries and relationships of people involved in a trial that defined a movement. With meticulous research, his reflection on the historic Chicago trial seems to be mostly in words, versus action. Similar to his approach to Molly’s Game, dialogue supersedes other modes of conveying a story. This very intellectual reinterpretation is fact-filled to the point of being dense. Yet it is emotionally charged enough to be compelling.
In 1968, MLK and RFK have been assassinated. President Johnson is sending more and more troops to fight in Vietnam, an endless war involving 30,000 American casualties and counting. Fathers, sons and brothers die. Vice President Hubert Humphrey will be formally named the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and anti-war activists mount their protests in the streets and parks in Chicago, Illinois. Mayor Richard Daley employs the National Guard and the CPD on the demonstrators. A bloody battle ensues. Protestors, police and civilians are injured.
In 1969, eight people are charged with “conspiring to start a riot”– defined as “a plan among two or more people conspiring to plot across state lines.” The case is presented in a courtroom by lead prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception), at the behest of the U.S Attorney General John Mitchell, who serves under President Richard Nixon. A guilty verdict could land the defendants in jail for decades. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon) quickly shows he is the boss in his courtroom, even if he’s a bit ditzy. The accused feel like they are part of a media circus, and act accordingly.
Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) head the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); counter-culture activist Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, Molly’s Game) lead the Yippies (Youth International Party); organizers David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) represent Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam); and Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Watchmen) is on trial too, morally supported by fellow Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves) and getting occasional assistance from defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies), who is actually representing other defendants.
That’s a lot of characters, moving parts and subplots for any audience to discern and remember. Yet as the prosecution makes its case and those on trial claim their innocence—either reverently (Hayden), with rebellion (Seale) or party antics (Rubin and Hoffman)—following who is who and why they do what they do is an achievable goal for attentive audiences, though probably not for casual viewers. Under Sorkin’s guidance, everything plays out accordingly. Flashbacks to the riots and debated events are displayed, breaking up the certain monotony of a pure courtroom drama.
From a historical standpoint, what’s on view is pretty flabbergasting. The government’s case is more about retribution than defending the country from anarchists. The prosecuting attorney has just enough consciousness to keep the audience guessing about his intentions. Friction between the white activists and lone black defendant boils over into heated discussions about racism and how the “petulant schoolboys” have parents who can save them, and the Panther does not. He has no sense of entitlement. No safety net. Clashes between the always irreverent Yippies and the more sober SDS are equally contentious. In these striking ways, Sorkin’s script has just enough of an unpredictable edge to keep that average egghead, history buff, counter-culture devotee or child of the ‘60s engaged.
Some of the outdoor scenes look like a set, even if they aren’t. The interiors (production designer; Shane Valentino, Nocturnal Animals) fair better. Exterior and interior shots, from lighting to composition, (director of photography Phedon Papamichael, Ford vs. Ferrari) are fine. The wardrobes for the lead actors make sense (costume designer Susan Lyall, Molly’s Game) but the clothes on the demonstrators look like they were bought from TJ Max and never worn before. It takes a full 2h 10min to retell this drama/history/thriller (editor Alan Baumgarten, Molly’s Game) and there are not many extraneous moments. It’s a pity that the over-hyped musical score does a disservice to the beginning of the film (composer Daniel Pemberton, Molly’s Game).
The cast is pretty earnest. You never question their conviction or strategy for their performances. Frank Langella is suitably wicked and crazed. Mark Rylance plays Kunstler as bright, courageous and a bit of a showman. Strong’s performance as Rubin greatly outweighs that of Cohen’s Hoffman; the former is a real actor and the latter is a British actor/comedian who can’t go as deep or master a Worcester, MA accent. Similarly, the pivotal role of Tom Hayden was given to British Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne who emotes well but can’t mimic Hayden’s Michigan accent and doesn’t resemble him at all. Bobby Seale’s outrage is well represented by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Ditto Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Hampton who is equally electric.
As a director, Sorkin is better at the inside scenes, less deft at the outside crowd sequences that look fake and arranged. It takes a director with a great feel for action to make demonstrations and riots look real. He’s not there yet, and that may not be his goal. Staging all the actors of this fairly large cast while they’re indoors seems to be more in his wheelhouse. He gives the cast and characters time to shine. Even when their monologues get preachy or sound too perfect. Even when their overly academic discussions feel more like lines from a play than real life.
As you get caught up in the bickering, betrayals and last-minute revelations, it’s almost easy to forget why the activists put so much on the line and why the government focuses so much attention on them and not the cause of their ire. That all becomes clear in one extremely profound moment when the names of the soldiers who died in Vietnam are read aloud. It’s the money shot. Heartbreaking. A supreme injustice is exposed. It’s the reason why they crusade and why audiences may care about this film.
Premiers on Netflix on October 16th.