Taking a politically-charged subject and turning it into a film rarely happens by way of sheer inertia. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a modern-day companion piece to All The President’s Men, was released at the time that it was. Similarly, Spike Lee didn’t just happen upon the story of Ron Stallworth and turned it into the eponymous BlacKkKlansman. By no means do I want to insinuate any degree of cynical opportunism was involved in creating these movies, though some filmmakers do fall into this category; what I am trying to articulate is the simple fact that filmmakers and storytellers are sentient resonance boxes capable of capturing and amplifying the sound of the zeitgeist.
Therefore, I am willing to extend a modicum of courtesy towards Aaron Sorkin and his latest effort, The Trial Of The Chicago 7, and see it as a film that reflects its time in more ways than one. It is no accident that in times of immense political turmoil – and as the US is gearing towards what some describe as a historical presidential election – a dramatized account of one of the most pivotal court cases in recent memory would see the light of day. It is quite clear that the subject matter of the story involving young revolutionaries seemingly tried for expressing dissent towards an openly oppressive state bears striking similarities to the political climate of today. The world is just as polarized (if not more) as it was in the late 1960s when vast swathes of disgruntled youths would take to the streets in protest against being sent away to fight in what they understood was an illegal war. Thus, enough cultural momentum is generated to allow this film to exist.
However, despite the central story of this movie openly lending itself towards cinematic adaptation exactly at this very moment in time, it might be entirely possible that Aaron Sorkin, who penned the script and directed the film as well, might have had an ulterior motive. In all likelihood, he wasn’t merely interested in reflecting the moral malaise of the current times – pandemic-stricken, marred by racial injustice and bellicose posturing from The White House – but rather he was predominantly pursuing a personal quest of recapturing the very spark that carried him into the limelight nearly three decades ago. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
The simple act of watching The Trial Of The Chicago 7 would immediately lead one to believe that something is either seriously wrong with the adaptation itself, or that the story Sorkin chose to tell was in its own right quite unusual. For what carries itself as a courtroom drama, the film is simply teeming with moments of farcical preposterousness and stylized bravado, which should in turn force any astute viewer to do some thinking of their own. After all, in the age of fake news and demonstrable editorializing on behalf of virtually everyone, fact-checking is the primary weapon of any enlightened mind. And only then does the filmmaker’s intention become much clearer – when we are able to examine parts of the story, ridiculous as they were, that actually took place, ones that were embellished for dramatic effect, and ones that were completely manufactured.
On some level, it is honestly fascinating to realize that some of the elements I’d be inclined to think were a complete fabrication, were essentially adapted verbatim from real life. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) did end up bound and gagged (and for far longer than the film indicates), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) did dress up as judges one day and Ramsay Clark’s deposition was thrown out by the clearly biased judge (Frank Langella) presiding over the trial. However, the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was not morally-conflicted, but rather an attack dog in service of the state. The undercover agent who seduced Rubin was either a composite character or complete fabrication. There was no open animosity between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the latter did not list the names of fallen soldiers as his closing statement in court. What is more, some extra digging will quickly reveal that the case in general was much more nuanced than Sorkin would have you believe and that it wasn’t a clear-cut case of a police state silencing protesters whose only crime was civil disobedience.
It is pretty clear Sorkin made a string of decisions to change the story and nobody warps historical record just because they can. One could possibly argue that he was attempting to ‘clean up’ this moral mine field and turn it into something the viewer could find much easier to relate to, which could be seen as a bit daft because of the ease with which these inaccuracies can be weaponized by the alt-right. It is my belief he pepped up this already organically preposterous story full of conveniences and miraculously dramatic turns (which actually happened!) to recapture the magic of A Few Good Men and maybe even go a few steps further. He wanted to make The Trial Of The Chicago 7 into his own To Kill A Mockingbird.
Unfortunately, this is where the crux of the problem is. As much as Aaron Sorkin is an extremely talented writer capable of crafting immensely compelling characters, some of whom like Nathan Jessup have become cultural icons in their own right, he is not much of a director. It would seem that having critically evaluated how Rob Reiner, David Fincher and Danny Boyle had handled his scripts, Sorkin convinced himself he could do it just as well. Sadly, watching basketball matches from the side-lines is not going to turn you into LeBron James and – conversely – observing great filmmakers do their thing is not going to turn you into Stanley Kubrick. And it clearly shows.
While Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, was also marred by directorial inadequacies, it was ultimately saved by the combined prowess of its leads, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, who hijacked the movie and made it work almost in spite of Sorkin’s artistic decisions. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is unable to do the same because its star power, such as it is, is diffused across an ensemble cast. As a result, even greatly talented actors like Mark Rylance and Michael Keaton are completely incapable of leading the movie because they never get more than thirty seconds of screen time. This denudes Sorkin’s shortcomings as a director and turns the entire film from what was planned as a ‘controlled farce’ into an unintended parody full of jarring tonal shifts, clichés and downright uninspired artistic decisions. Even though it has its moments where the story briefly takes flight, especially when the dramatized account is interspersed with archival footage, these fleeting instances of compelling profundity are immediately undercut by Sorkin’s lack of restraint. It is as though he did not have enough confidence the visuals alone would be able to speak for themselves, so he felt he needed to spice them up with unsubtle musical cues and even inserted completely fabricated beats – like Hayden’s final speech accompanied by unearned swelling violins. All because he wanted to be able to say he could direct A Few Good Men himself as well.
Suffice it to say that Aaron Sorkin isn’t as talented a director as he definitely thinks he is. It makes me wonder if he can handle the truth [sic!] that he has a long way to go before his directing skill matches his writing talent; if it ever gets there. Judging by how The Trial Of The Chicago 7 has turned out, his directorial sensibility is closest in spirit to that of Robert Zemeckis. Although he directed some amazing films in the past, nobody in their right mind – especially in the current climate – should aspire to direct like Zemeckis. And stories like this one deserve to be told using more than clichés and shorthand. But then again, this film was likely conceived not out of organic drive but rather as an ego-trip to win Sorkin an Oscar he so desperately craves.