The acclaimed writer-director’s latest film has his best characteristics battling his worst.
For Many, an Aaron Sorkin script is instantly recognizable. Loads of witty dialogue, walk & talks, characters who so comfortably pour out their souls, and more witty dialogue. When Sorkin sticks to writing, his work is generally put through a quality filter by their respective directors- see film of the decade The Social Network or Moneyball. When another talented artist can reign in on Sorkin’s tendencies their collective work is amazing. Molly’s Game was the writers first take at directing, to mixed results. Three years later he is back with a with his second feature, the often too timely ‘Trial of the Chicago 7.’
The film loosely tells the true story of men who protested the Vietnam war, leading them to be on trial for “inciting riots.” Much of the discussion within the movie is discussion that is all too prevelant today. The trial is a battle of Who started it — did the police initiate the violence or was it the protestors?Within the group on trial another debate rages on about democratic ideology. Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne) is the leader of the Students for a Democratic society. As the professional of the group- clean faced, J Crew stock model quality, he’s guy who looks like he’d stand on a coffee shop table and espouse a vague but hopeful message like Beto O’Rourke. His ideology is at battle with Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), the co-founder of the Youth International Party (“Yippies”), a free wheeling idealist who much more resembles what a middle aged fox news watcher thinks an ANTIFA super solider looks like.
Much of the movie is great- Sorkin films are consistently entertaining, and at the very least the film sheds light on a trial that many people do not know much about. Amid the history there are also brief attempts at humor- Jeremy Strong’s character having a brief relationship with an egg and Judge Hoffman’s constant reminder that he has no relation to Abbie Hoffman. The film ultimately falls apart with its final scene. While the movie is based on history, the finale takes place in a fantasy world where the good guys win and the bad guys are served their kryptonite of smarmy words. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz, who would seemingly be the antagonist. Sorkin, however, sets him up differently. Before the trial Sorkin makes sure to have a scene where Schultz declares that he does not think the Chicago 7 are guilty. Schultz must be a good guy, despite remaining as the prosecutor. Why does Sorkin feel urged to give this prosecutor dignity?
The final scene, which has Tom Hayden giving his final thoughts before the convictions are read is suppose to be the center of the movie. Judge Hoffman urges Hayden to be brief, and in exchange their sentencing will reflect that. Hayden declines the judges request, instead deciding to list the names of every soldier who died in Vietnam, along with their ages — over four thousand people. The scene lacks power as it becomes a corny affair with everyone in the court room cheering, and slowly standing up in solidarity in a way that seems much too perfect and performative. Eventually, Schultz stands up too, much to the contempt of his law partner, who storms out in anger, along with those who align with him. The bad guys have lost! They got angry and embarrased! In Sorkin World that is a perfect ending, just a brief moment of embarrassment for those who care much more about institutions than people.
In September Sorkin was asked how he would write election night 2020 if Trump lost & refused a peaceful transition. Sorkin remained consistent with his writing habits. Fortunately for all, he made note that it was romanticized. Unfortunately for ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,’ there is no such note.