The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on every short list for a best picture nomination at the Academy Awards. With Hollywood favorites like Aaron Sorkin, Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne attached to the project, it is no surprise it is a favorite in the awards community.
Released in October of last year to Netlfix the film was an early contender for the awards who has hung on through the deep of the submission season and for good reason. To let you know if its any good The Conservative Critic will ask: “Was it entertaining?” “Did it have artistic/intellectual value?” and “Was it liberal propaganda?”
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Overall rating: Just good
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (7) is a courtroom drama based on the true story of seven Americans who were placed on trial for the alleged crimes of inciting a violent riot in Chicago on the night of the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
The film has all the theater and bravado of a traditional courtroom drama with the benefit of using some pretty explosive source material from the transcripts and court records of the real life trial in 1968. Its an easy watch as courtroom dramas so often are with the outcome of the ruling creating a tidy closure for the plot and it very nearly would have been great if not for Sorkin’s penchant for vague smarminess which taints so much of his work.
As the director of one of some of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time, A Few Good Men, Sorkin always achieves moments of true greatness (re: You can’t handle the truth!) which are sullied by platitudes, unlikely do-gooders and a general ora of self righteousness. “7” is no different and while it was not bad and at moments was very good, it falls short of greatness. If this was not an Oscar Watch review – it would be more celebratory in its rating of “good” but awards dictate the need to be “great.”
Was it Entertaining?
Rating: Very much
Considering most casual viewers will only have a vague point of reference for the true story of the Chicago 7 and the subsequent trial, the film was a narrative rollercoaster which included many exciting, shocking and often horrifying twists. The viewer is taken on a journey to 1968 when the war in Vietnam was becoming ever less popular and activism was the most popular activity in the country for college students across the United States. The scene feels altogether incredibly familiar. The perspective altering comparisons between the problems of the seven defendants of the trial and modern controversial riots, activist groups and political concerns made it easier for the viewer to be pulled in and to relate to people who might look and speak like they’re from a different world and not just fifty years ago in our own country.
Sorkin brings in the viewer as if we are members of the court gallery watching in real time rather than in the comfort of our living rooms. As each chip falls, and each shocking statement from the judge is made you can’t help but be enraptured wondering “did that really happen?”
There is a point in the film so emotionally gripping and unbelievable when one of the 7, the only black member and the leader of the Black Panthers, is bound and gagged in the courtroom that it is impossible to refrain from physical outburst be it tears, be it a gasp or the question of the reality.
The reality is what makes it so entertaining. This moment where an American citizen who, without a lawyer present, was bound and gagged in the middle of a federal courtroom is 100% true and in fact Sorkin played it down. In the film the episode is resolved within minutes, in life the episode isn’t resolved for three days and the real life defendant remained bound and gagged throughout all three days of the trial as the motion to mistrial was being resolved.
There are several moments like these which Sorkin artfully doles out in the perfect pacing for the delicious tension you come to expect out of a courtroom drama. There is nothing boring about “7.”
Did it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: High quality
What works in the film best is Sorkin’s experienced direction. The pregnant pauses and charged inferences are artifully intentional and allow the viewer to imagine a world where Atticus Finch still paces the wooden floors delivering speeches on justice. Sorkin made the wise decision to develop the plot using flashbacks instead of giving us the whole story in advance of the trial. This is formulaic for courtroom dramas since half the fun is not knowing who is really guilty. While its not breaking any ground, the formula works and the story is exciting.
Sorkin leans heavily on the performances of his award winning ensemble cast and they deliver a mixed performance with a few stand outs and a few weak links. Oscar nominated Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon, Now You See It) as the film’s villain, Judge Julius Hoffman, plays an exasperating chrony who you cannot help but hate. It’s a brilliant performance which ties the film together with a common enemy.
Emmy award winner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, The Watchmen) as the Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale really works. Even in some of the heavy handed dialog, Abdul-Mateen manages to balance strength and vulnerability on the tip of a pin and leaves the viewer desperately wanting more and forgetting that they can just google it to find out what happens to Bobby. Abdul-Mateen does not have to make an unlikely sympathetic character out of his Bobby, the source material will do it for you, but he does bring a certain rattled “every-man” to him which for the first time in memory drops the shroud of legend which normally surrounds the Black Panthers for all their many flaws.
Academy award winner, Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall) is the films “good guy” as the lawyer of the Chicago 7 and manages to carry some big moments with a lot of authenticity which a less skilled artisan would have made trite.
And less skilled artisans did fail to disentangle Sorkin’s saturated script. Golden globe nominee and fan favorite, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the prosecutor, Richard Schultz was impossible to root for despite being written as a do-gooder in a bad position. From his exaggerated looks of disappointment to his unrealistic lectures on character, it is clear that Levitt simply could not unbury himself from Sorkin’s pile of cheese.
Emmy winner, Jeremy Strong (Succession, Molly’s Game) as “yippie” Jerry Rubin dips deeply into caricature and never really brings an authenticity to a granted, quite challenging role of a real life 1960s hippie. At no point in the film is Strong able to take control of his poofy wig and activist platitudes and create a feeling of realness around his Rubin. His counter part and fellow yippie Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Les Miserable) as Abbie Hoffman is not genius but he is valiant and more than adequate in creating a truth to a fairly unbelievable real life character.
The real drag on the film’s potential is the writing. When it pivots from source material, it falls into soapy late night political drama (like Sorkin’s West Wing or Newsroom) which does nothing to embrace or uplift the already fantastical real life events. For no reason at all, Sorkin includes a young, beautiful female character (played by Catlin Fitzgerald) to act indignant and self righteous about police brutality. While her FBI agent character may have been real, she has no real purpose in the storyline other than to set a baseline for self righteousness.
What Sorkin fails to anticipate in drafting the script is that the American viewer will be outraged all on their own by the events in the courtroom during the Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin makes the common Hollywood error that viewers are incapable of understanding the moral or thematic implications of the work in front of them so they choose to hold their hands the whole way. “7” doesn’t cross over into full condescension but it does enough handholding to make it a little suffocating. The film does a wonderful job setting the world stage ripe with war, racial tensions, and young progressivism. The film sets the temperature of the environment when the riot broke out in Chicago in 1968 as one degree south of boiling, and Sorkin should have trusted his own work and allowed that context to hold the weight of the overall message.
Was it Liberal Propaganda?
Rating: It maybe wanted to be but not exactly
The subject of the film is a real life trial featuring esven rabble rousers and progressive activists. Its difficult to imagine a scenario where this film can be produced free of agenda.
Sorkin released the film in October in the heat of calls to “defund police” and made a palpable effort to depict police officers as brainless robot murderers with no motivation besides oppressing the poor innocent protestors. While its clear some officers may have acted with brutality and further the system may have been set to allow brutal tactics to disperse riots, it is not clear in the source material to what extent and it is certain that many of those men served their city with integrity. This part of the film was relatively minor to the overall plot and therefore not enough to go full liberal mind melt.
He also made sure to defend the moral integrity of government even while displaying one of its greatest indictments by making heroes out of the government’s lead prosecutor (he prosecuted them yes, but he was sorry and sad poor poor prosecutor), the former Attorney General (played by Michael Keaton, he cant be a bad man cause he is a straight shooter!) and the ingenue FBI do-gooder (she is so pretty and she felt bad for pretending to support them while actually reporting their actions to the feds). Never can liberal Hollywood admit that the government is not here to help us. Certainly not the FBI who infiltrated the protest undercover and probably started the riots themselves.
Additionally, Bobby Seale the leader of the openly violent organization the Black Panthers would go on the next year to (allegedly) order the torture and murder of a police informer who had betrayed his organization. While Bobby’s violent tactics which took innocent lives and spread distruction are not an excuse for the abhorrent miscarriage of justice in his binding and gagging in an American courtroom; they are relevant to establishing the overall picture of Seales as a person. The character in the film simply disappears with no end credit explanation so Sorkin doesn’t have to deal with the pesky awkwardness of Seale’s murderous legacy.
The film has many surprisingly conservative messages, particularly in the context of a world post January 6, Capitol riot. The film provides incredibly familiar context to the events which lead to the massive riot in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In fact, the film’s main subjects the Chicago 7 themselves by their own admission and the narrative of the film were seeking to violently break into the Democratic National Convention. An act that by the standards of the liberal media today would be considered “seditious.” The film does not condone the riot or the inciting of the riot but it does allow for the viewer to understand the intention of the words spoken by Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden which allegedly caused the riot to break out. It walks dangerously close to arguing that words cannot – not matter what they are- be considered inherently violent or capable of inciting violence. Not a message the liberal media would want to spread but a message we need to hear a lot more of.
Further – the real events the viewer is exposed to during the course of the trial expose the dangers of trial by opinion of the Government, the injustices of silence and the capability of the law to be leveraged unfairly against those who are inconvenient to the hegemonic narrative. These are truths that should be embraced and heeded by conservatives as we barrel toward a world where our voices are not welcome in any of the mainstream, no matter our actions or our character.
I don’t see a best picture win in the cards for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and I am unsure of its merits as a nominee outside of the fact that so few movies were made this year due to the pandemic. However, it was an entertaining film if you enjoy courtroom dramas and it is supremely educational about an absolutely shocking event in the history of American justice. Worth a watch for any filmy or legal buff.