“The whole world is watching” chants the ending of Aaron Sorkin’s latest political drama. It’s a conscious and bold choice to end the two-hour-long film with such a loaded quote, especially since the film spends more time presenting a glossy picture of revolution instead of digging into the grittiness that makes the subject matter so timely. Written and directed by Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is a legal drama that follows the Chicago Seven, a group of leaders from various organizations that held anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Starring an ensemble cast of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, and more, the film is anchored by strong performances across the board. Redmayne and Strong give particularly thrilling performances with their portrayals of Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin, respectively. Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman is one of the best performances of the entire film and his chemistry with Strong elevates mundane scenes to some of the most entertaining ones. In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 actually makes a more compelling case for a film about Hoffman and Rubin starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong than whatever Sorkin was aiming for. It is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, however, that delivers the film’s most striking, and best, performance. His portrayal of Bobby Seale is defiant and fiery, he brings all of the urgency necessary to embody and give justice to the co-founder of the Black Panther Party. His performance is a bittersweet highlight because Seale’s character is where a number of the film’s flaws can be found.
The 1969 case was a monumental one for American history. In terms of protesters’ rights, freedom of speech, the limits, or lack thereof, of federal powers, etc., this was a landmark case. In an effort to condense the narrative and make it more conducive to a pretty film, Sorkin sacrifices, and, at times, excludes key details of the case which makes for a vapid retelling and interpretation of these pivotal events. At the center of all of this is a scene where Bobby Seale is bound and gagged in the courtroom. In the actual trial, Seale was able to find a way out of those confines. Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 portrays the court, and, effectively, the government, as successful in silencing Seale, they were not. This creative liberty with facts and history makes for a nicely packaged narrative moment that is to the detriment of the only major Black character in the film and in the story. Given the relatively short amount of screentime Seale is given (the specific case against him ended in a mistrial because his lawyer was not there to represent him), it seems sloppy and problematic that his portrayal is marred by an inaccuracy that could have been easily avoided. Furthermore, Sorkin bends the historical timeline to the will of his screenplay. Unfortunately, the historical inaccuracies do not end there. In all honesty, is a screenplay full of heavy-handed metaphors worth taking such liberties with history? The Trial of the Chicago 7 is obviously a drama and not a documentary, but why play with history if it only hurts and diminishes the impact of the story?
It would be foolish to try to ignore the present-day parallels our current world has to the world of the film. 2020 has been as defined by protests in the wake of the state-sanctioned murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as it has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re a little over fifty years removed from the events of the film, and nothing has changed. While the film hits us over the head with that conclusion, we know that walking into the film. The Trial of the Chicago 7 misses a prime opportunity to really dig into the messiness of revolution. We’re in the midst of one right now, so why not truly evoke the spirit of the 60s and get a bit more reckless with it? Forget the polish. What the film does get right, however, is the innate theatricality of American politics, specifically in the courtroom. In typical Sorkin fashion, the writing underscores the desperation of honest men in the face of the government and Frank Langella’s portrayal of Judge Julius Hoffman is pitch-perfect. Despite a couple of self-righteous moments, the writing is largely excellent, and each actor finds a way to breathe their own essence into it. Redmayne’s headstrong intellectualism plays well against Rylance’s ever-increasing frustration which, in turn, plays well against Levitt’s quiet revolutionary-from-the-inside spirit. If anything, The Trial of the Chicago 7’s issues could have been avoided had it been helmed by a director that was more willing to reject the meticulously pretty packaging that Sorkin is so fond of. It’s too clean and that’s the film’s chief problem: it’s trying to portray a clean and pretty picture of a trial that was anything but that in a decade that was anything but that.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 will likely play well with awards bodies because it repackages a political statement that’s already been told and it rings truer by virtue of the year in which it was released You can’t help but feel a bit cheated, though. The film was really close to reaching something new and different. Sidebar: those wigs were awful. It’s ultimately an enjoyable watch, but you may feel a bit empty once that last “the whole world is watching” chant finishes ringing out. The whole world may well be watching, but is it watching a film that reached its full potential?