When I saw the cast for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), I knew I’d have to watch the film. Eddie Redmayne? Jeremy Strong? Michael Keaton? Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a sympathetic antagonist? Count me in.
Then I heard both reviews both positive and negative. First, the negative: I listened to the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, in which the hosts criticized Sorkin’s heavy-handed directorial style and questioned whether a narrative feature film was the best medium for telling this story.
In the supporter camp, a good friend of mine praised the film’s writing. As I am an occasional writer, and because I still wanted to see the performances, I decided to give it a shot.
On the topic of reviews, this film made me feel like hearing or reading reviews about a film is detrimental to my viewing experience. It establishes a framework for evaluating the film that is hard to break free from. When a friend tells me the writing is good, I constantly ask myself, “did that line of dialogue feel natural?” When a podcast host questions the choice of medium, I find myself wondering, “maybe that scene would have played better in a documentary.” Perhaps I may shy away from reviews entirely for future films (as I write one myself).
Either way, I found the first ~40 minutes of the film to be excruciating. Shot, reverse-shot; character A speaks, character B responds. I liked the writing, but there was also little to like besides the writing. There wasn’t an image that stood out visually or an interaction that stood out dramatically. Despite the heavyweight cast, the acting is limited to a bunch of men speaking in turns, relatively politely, in a courtroom. The cinematic medium has so much more to offer, and Sorkin seemed to reduce it to a well-polished table read.
The subject matter also, perhaps inevitably, makes the film feel cluttered. With so many characters and such complex allegiances amongst the parties involved, I came out feeling like I would’ve appreciated the film more had I been more educated on the historical context. If too much is going on, then too much is glossed over, and perhaps this is why the film shouldn’t have been a film. Let’s compare it to O.J. Simpson and the recent media portrayals of his infamous trial: O.J. Made in America is a documentary series that stretches nearly 8 hours long, and season 1 of American Crime Story (“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) was a 10 episode television series. Those were for just one defendant, and this film has eight.
On a positive note, I appreciated the interspersing of real-life footage within the narrative. Although this technique has become a bit of a cliche, the footage felt especially powerful because they documented events that look eerily similar to images we still see now. Amidst our current reckoning on issues of racism and police brutality, the America of 1968 on TV doesn’t look too different from the America of 2020 on Tik Tok. Such parallels allow the dramatized portions of the film to function as a bridge between then and now.
As the story approaches the trial’s verdict, Sorkin makes a better case for adapting these events into a feature film. There is a controlled manipulation of pacing and drama as the film cuts between different perspectives to great effect. Defendant A’s account may blend seamlessly into Defendant B’s account with nuanced differences. Witness A’s account may be set in contrast against Witness A’s actions that contradict his testimony. Sorkin better utilizes cinema here, as this is the medium that allows the artist to interweave perspectives and stimulate intrigue by jumping so fluidly between contrasting accounts of the same events. At its most effective, this technique is a perfect storm of strong performance, sharp dialogue, polished editing, and compelling drama.
For such a politically relevant film, however, my evaluation of its quality depends ultimately on what the film is trying to say and how convincingly it illustrates that message. By this metric, the film falls short of its potential because it fails to appreciate nuance. Sorkin paints “the system” with a black brush, a portrayal I found to be every bit as heavy-handed as the podcast hosts claimed. Every film needs an antagonist, but the judge, the prosecution (barring Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character), and the witnesses all felt more like malicious villains than complex human beings. This portrayal is great for making the audience emotionally invested in the story—everything the judge says and does just pisses you off— but it omits the complexity needed to say anything meaningful about salient social issues.
The portrayal of the defendants is more nuanced, and I appreciated the tension between the various parties, especially between Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). As a pragmatist, I resonated with Hayden’s criticism of Hoffman that his outlandish methods alienate the mainstream electorate, potentially costing them future elections. I also agreed with Hoffman when he criticized Hayden for not checking his privilege. At times Hayden comes off disingenuous and seems to value his own fate over the cause they collectively support. Is it better to die a martyr or play the game to fight another day? There’s no easy answer, but the two men do find common ground and mutual respect.
I just wish the opposition was portrayed with equal nuance and subtlety. When the antagonist is caricatured, the victory feels hollow. The real world is not split into people who are obviously right and people who are obviously wrong. Everyone thinks they are right, and it is easy to vilify others. It is challenging, but all the more important, to understand and empathize with those who disagree with us. The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives at a time with perhaps the greatest partisan divides in modern political history. For Sorkin to make this film, yet fail to find a middle ground—that is what I consider to be the film’s most blatantly missed opportunity.