It only takes a couple of minutes before you see Sacha Baron Cohen in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. I, like most people who are going to sit down to watch this film, already knew he was in it and knew that he was playing Abbie Hoffman, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised. (Baron Cohen has been attached to the project for nearly 15 years, a fact that I also have been aware of ever since it was first announced.) But even knowing what to expect, I have to say that the sight of Baron Cohen in ostentatious hippie garb, talking about the man and reefer to an only slightly less ostentatious Jeremy Strong (who plays Jerry Rubin in a role that was originally meant, apparently, for Seth Rogen), immediately had me feeling like I was embarking on a treacherous journey.
There’s something about the’60s that makes the decade catnip to filmmakers. I’m not just talking about the events of the ’60s or trying to say that the ’60s are somehow overexposed; they’re 10 years of human history where admittedly a lot of shit happened that is more contextually relevant to our time than, say, the 1460s. I’m talking about the visual language, the music, the costumes and the actual language of the ’60s — it seems like most people, faced with an army jacket with patches on it, a tie-dyed t-shirt and the first few bars of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” will just completely lose their minds in a sustained fit of misplaced nostalgia.
That’s what I felt I was seeing in the first few minutes of the last Sorkin walk-and-talk opus (though this one is, to his credit, more talk and less walk) centering on the trial of seven men accused of conspiracy and inciting to riot (amongst other accusations) after protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of course, Abbie Hoffman is something of a hippie prototype; so many stock characterizations of hippies have, knowingly or not, borrowed from him. But to see Borat up there with an oversized afro chewing through an uncertain American accent (to Cohen’s defence, the film leans rather heavily on Hoffman’s standup comedy routine, and I can see how casting someone with comedic chops might help that particular aspect of the film) briefly led me to believe that this entire endeavour was going to be rougher than I had even anticipated.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin aren’t the main characters of The Trial of the Chicago 7, though they could ostensibly be considered the two central figures of the titular seven — seven anti-war activists arrested and tried for their participation in an anti-war march in 1968. (Eight men were originally arrested; Black Panther Bobby Seale [Yahya Abdul-Mateen II] was eventually removed from the trial after first being involved without his lawyer present — though he was mandated to be bound and gagged (!) by the judge in the interim.) There’s a nearly endless amount of social and political context surrounding these particular events, so much so that it’s impossible to assume that a movie would properly cover all of them, and so The Trial of the Chicago 7 tries to focus mainly on being an old-fashioned courtroom drama.
At the centre of the courtroom drama is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), an old-school hardass who has seemingly no qualms about running the courtroom with obvious (some would say ostentatious) bias. For the conservative Hoffman, everything about this particular case is a farce, a feeling shared (though from the other side entirely) by pretty much all of the Chicago 7 (save perhaps Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, who remains a pretty by-the-book shit-stirrer) and their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). The courtroom turns into a battlefield almost immediately, with Rubin and Hoffman routinely mocking the judge who’s all too happy to cite them for contempt of court.
Aaron Sorkin is not particularly known for his visual verve as a filmmaker or his restraint as a writer. Sorkin’s entire thing is hyper-verbose, hyper-expository, generally political rabble-rousing, often of the chin-strokingly self-important variety. We’d say Sorkin is an acquired taste if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s extremely prolific and popular, but as it stands we can at the very least agree that Sorkin is just as capable of whiffing as he is of pulling off the impossible. Alas, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is somewhere in the middle, a reasonably compelling but rigid and unsurprising treatment of events that are both inherently cinematic and difficult to dramatize.
The courtroom scenes are plentiful and usually pretty electric, thanks in large part to an overstuffed cast that makes the sequences compelling exercises in yelling, but the film has a pretty obvious desire to draw parallels between then and now, and often falls into tiresome scene construction that all but comes with the added bonus of Sorkin elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you’re really getting it. Compelling but not exactly brisk, The Trial of the Chicago 7 often bogs down in “the wrong kind” of minutiae. There’s more time dedicated to impassioned speeches about injustice between white guys with rolled up sleeves than to the broader social context, and the scenes showing the actual demonstration that led to the seven’s arrest feel a little stiff under Sorkin’s watch.
It’s inevitable that a movie like this one takes shortcuts and buffs out some of the incongruities that come with real life. In that sense, it’s not so much Strong and Cohen who come off the worst but the “sensible, moderate” characters played by Redmayne and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the principled lead prosecutor Richard Schultz. These figures — conflicted, contradictory ones in a story more interested in shades of grey — are treated simultaneously as audience stand-ins (my guess is because they straddle ideological lines, but also because they are the most bland-ass mayonnaise dudes in a veritable cornucopia of whiteness) but also as a type of voice of reason. In other words, Aaron Sorkin made exactly the movie one would assume Aaron Sorkin would make out of this material.
It’s easy to look at specific aspects of The Trial of the Chicago 7 and find problems. I suspect this is going to be one of those movies where, a year from now, someone posts an isolated clip on Twitter of something preposterous that happens in it and everyone will wonder how we could possibly have missed it. I suppose the best thing I could say about The Trial of the Chicago 7, besides the fact that it is rather well-timed (though it loses points for how smugly it acknowledges that fact), is that it’s a compellingly cohesive whole. It manages to fold Borat and Kendall Roy doing near-SNL level hippie shit into a movie that lets us forget that very fact — which is not easy. ■
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix as of Friday Oct., 16. For more about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer here:
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