' ' Cinema Romantico: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7

It makes sense that Netflix’s dramatization of seven prominent counterculture members (and Black Panther Bobby Seale) being tried for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention would be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. After all, Sorkin wrote the screenplay for “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network”, the former turning on a military trial and the latter pivoting off two depositions.  If “A Few Good Men”, however, proffered a garden variety argument about right and wrong, it was also a true crackerjack entertainment, so eminently watchable it seems to be running on cable TV 24-7 while “The Social Network” stood out by lingering in moral grey areas. In “The Trial of The Chicago 7”, on the other hand, both written and directed by Sorkin, his patented monologues, pithy conversations and bleeding heart take all the piss out of the true story. There is nothing wrong, of course, with utilizing the medium of the flickering myth to reimagine truth. But rather than rendering a counter myth, a la Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, Sorkin is essentially transforming the Chicago 7 into his own mouthpiece, subsuming their radical politics in the name of something superficial. 

“The Trial of The Chicago 7” opens with a whoosh by bringing its myriad players onto the stage at once in advance of their anti-war demonstrations in Chicago at the DNC. Rather, however, than cutting straight to the riots, which once unveiled are rendered in too stagy a manner, isolating individual moments, to convey the true power of the mob, Sorkin flashes forward to the trial’s beginning before flashing back to the various events resulting in the court case. Though members of the 7, especially Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), sought to create a courtroom spectacle, and though Sorkin’s dialogue demonstrates sympathy with the defendants, his taste proves more in line with the horn-rimmed glasses and conservatism of the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). 

Spielbergian soft light pouring through the windows gives the proceedings a ring of stateliness that unintentionally dulls the flower power, the latter further compromised in the movie’s penchant for awards-beckoning close-ups and swelling orchestral music rather than subversive pop hits of era, a quaint aesthetic that feels more true to a John Grisham adaptation than how a fellow beatnik like, say, the late Hal Ashby might have conveyed this material. If only. The actors portraying the 7, in addition to Mark Rylance as their attorney William Kunstler, are uniformly sound in so much as they ably embody the distinct trait afforded them in the screenplay. But no actor manages, or is allowed the necessary room to, sculpt a true character, innately evoking the grounds for that trait. 

Presiding Judge Julius Hoffman, meanwhile, may well have been a single dimensional real-life life person but as played by Frank Langella in low-angled shots looking up at him smug and self-impressed in doling out count after count of contempt of court he comes across less like a hanging judge than a version of his reactionary White House Chief of Staff from “Dave.” In the moment when Hoffman, orders Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), in Chicago for entirely different reasons that day and without a lawyer of his own, beaten and then gagged, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” briefly threatens to ignite. History, alas, dictates that Seal then be removed from the proceedings, emblematic not so much of how he tracked a different line than his fellow defendants than how his incendiary Black Panther politics are simply too much for a two-dimensional portrayal of good & evil to contain.

Ultimately the real drama is found in the relationship between the 7’s most most prominent members: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman. Hayden, founder of the Students for Democratic Society and co-author of the Port Huron Statement, treats the legal proceedings with respect in hopes of currying a fair trial while Hoffman, colorful founder of the Yippies, transforms the trial into a mockery by way of making it into a show. Unlike “The Social Network, however, which turned in part on the distinct push and pull between Eduardo Saverin’s rose-colored viewpoint and the ruthlessness of Mark Zuckerberg, Hayden and Hoffman do not escalate their dramatic back and forth so much as find a middle ground, pledging belief in a system they ostensibly are antagonizing, oddly, insultingly reducing the legacy of the Chicago 7 to compromised mush. 

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