Aaron Sorkin is one of the most supercilious, self righteous and pretentious filmmakers in modern filmmaking. He’s not bad at writing but his work preaches arrogantly to the choir and aggrandizes leftist causes at every level regardless of whether it’s logical or right to do so.
I don’t hate his entire filmography of course. His non-political projects are in my opinion much more fully realized dramas than his political ones. The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs are all super interesting movies he wrote and he was able to find some intense nuance and critical distance in the characters and subject matters he was approaching enough to tell fresh and interesting stories.
When he starts writing about politics though, his egocentric politics pollute the project and make it noxious. His 1995 film The American President was a tacit defense of Clinton’s extra marital affair. The West Wing was porn for Bush-era liberals. He even somehow managed to make To Kill a Mockingbird pretentious with his 2018 stage adaptation.
Let’s not forget his most irritating Obama era through back when he wrote a soaring soliloquy for Jeff Daniel’s character in The Newsroom about how America isn’t a great country anymore because America has slipped in a handful of quality of life statistics and too many Americans still believe in angels…
Regardless, he has a new movie out. Trial of the Chicago 7 has not been a film I’ve been looking forward too. I wasn’t sure what angle he was going to take in his exploration of the rioters who took part in the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Admittedly I wasn’t grooving on the film well from the start. The movie starts with a montage with of famous 1960s activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy giving speeches about the horrors of the Vietnam War which is intercuts with their assassinations. It then cuts to another montage of leftist activists planning to protest at the DNC if they refuse to run an anti-war candidate.
Characters muse that they don’t want to be violent but that they’re not afraid to escalate the conflict. A black panther muses that he’s not afraid to show up armed to the convention to prove a point. “They tried it peacefully, now we’re gonna try something else.”
It’s pretty clear what the film’s introduction is saying about 1960s and current politics. The movie is furious about the rigged nature of politics, the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to stand up for “moral” policies and is advocating for the legitimacy of leftist political violence.
It’s weird then that Sorkin apparently wrote the script for Trial of the Chicago 7 back in 2007 with the intent of having Steven Spielberg direct it. This script feels like it was written in the past seven months as a tacit defense of far-left groups like Antifa and the Black Panthers. The film comes replete with long diatribes about how political violence against oppressors is legitimate and how the police are the ones who instigate brutal assaults against innocent illegal protests. I would imagine the toxic political atmosphere of the past four years it what made Netflix want to produce the film.
It’s hard at any given point to figure out just which side Sorkin is personally on. At one point, the lawyers defending the Chicago 7 try to write off the group as a bunch of rabble rousers making noise. The movie runs defense for them though. It hardly has anything bad to say about the protestors other than the fact they’re they’re disorganized and quick to violence.
There are subplots where some of the radicals discuss how difficult it is to function within normal society. One of the socialist kids talks about the fact that he has to shake tailing police every night so that his girlfriend’s parents will still believe he’s an honest upstanding young man. Later in the film, members of the Chicago 7 get into a fight as to whether violent revolution or democratic processes are the appropriate way to bring about change.
Maybe the film is trying to communicate something more nuanced about these characters but it’s clear that the movie’s heart is with the hippies, democratic socialists and black nationalist revolutionaries. The movie’s goal start to finish is to convince you that these innocent antiwar protestors are being railroaded by their own political party and the American system at large because of naked prejudice and top-down corruption.
Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world but the movie stinks of a con job from start to finish. It’s not a painful watch mind you. The dialog is quick and the acting is solid from a veritable who’s-who of modern character actors: Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, etc.
The movie is just so clean cut though that it can’t help but feel like a propaganda piece. It’s all just a little bit too clean and doesn’t embrace the complicated realities and dissonances that come with being a political radical. Real radicals like these bicker constantly. They disagree with each other over minute details constantly and call each other out for being insufficient to the cause.
As RogerEbert.com writes:
It’s when one considers the overall picture that things get a little hazy… Perhaps because of the importance he places on a script he’s been developing over a decade and has even more weight with the increased protest movement in 2020, Sorkin gets too precious with his characters and dialogue. It’s too polished—there’s no dirt under any fingernails, even Jerry and Abbie’s. Even a place that self-identifies as the Conspiracy House feels like a perfectly-lit set. These men were facing actual prison time and they very clearly understood their role in history, protest, and even public opinion of the Vietnam War, all during such a messy and uncertain era… All of these elements and more make “The Trial of the Chicago 7” into an engaging drama, but one that could have been as impactful as that unforgettable chant if it was more willing to embrace imperfection.
Alas, embracing imperfection might mean having to say something unpleasant about the radicals in our own midst today that the Democratic Party pretends it doesn’t placate to.
In a lot of ways, the film is a cry against the idea of complacency. The actual trial, which makes up the duration of the film’s runtime, is replete with moments of the seven men and their lawyers losing their tempers and calling out the charade of the trial. At one point, one of the black defendants is dragged in back, gagged and charged with contempt because he couldn’t keep his indignation at the proceedings in check.
At all points, the film wants to emphasize the injustice of what’s happening to these young radicals by justifying their causes and castigating those who opposed them. The cops are only brutal and unrelenting. The judge is constantly hostile and retributive. At one point, former attorney general Ramsey Clark takes the stand to testify that the Nixon justice department wouldn’t bring a case against the Chicago 7 because the evidence suggested the cops instigated the riot unnecessarily. The judge throws the testimony out and refuses to let the jury hear it.
The film builds up to the final defendant speaking before the court and being complimented by the judge for his “respectable” looks and good temperament. The swipe at “respectability politics” is clearly a defense of the muddy and provocative actions of the protesters who were in violation of the law by protesting to begin with. The moral of the film seems to be that injustice needs to be spoken out against at the source even when doing so is a breach of court etiquette and irrelevant to the question of law at hand. If the antiwar protestors violated the law, they still broke the law. If the cops engaged in undo brutality and instigated a riot, they were in the wrong too. In this moral framework, the legal system is just a technicality that gets in the way of truer justice which must subvert the system at any cost. It’s an irrelevant question if the protestors get their hands a little dirty in the process.
The reality of the actual trial is less than clean cut. In a recent interview for The Chicago Tribune, the 82 year old surviving prosecutor Richard Schultz spoke out about the chaos of the courtroom and the disturbing proceedings outside of the courthouse. In the film, Schultz is played by Joseph Gordan-Levitt as a stern, simplistic stooge of the city of Chicago’s legal team.
As Schultz recounts, the defendants and their friends were constantly plotting to disrupt the trial and render it unprosecutable. Black Panther friends of Bobby Seal send a threatening letter to one of the jurors. The defendants than claimed in a news conference that the letter had been sent by the government to frame them. Brawls and singing constantly broke out in the courtroom. The audience would come in each day of the trial to castigate the process and disrupt until a US Marshal would have to physically remove them. Schultz himself had to receive protection because the federal government feared for his life.
Seal being bound and gagging is made into a spectacle in the film but Schultz contests this incident as well. Seal claimed he was being denied a defense even though it’s possible his own lawyer simply walked out on him. Seal did have to be bound in real life because he was in contempt of court. The law mandated he had to physically be present for the trial if he wanted a fair trial and he refused to cooperate. Schultz argued the incident may have even been a setup by the Black Panthers to frame the trial as racist. Seal would later be charged for contempt but had appealed the charges and wasn’t retried for conspiracy. The seven defendants would all later be acquitted of the conspiracy charge.
“Everything was so exaggerated, you would think the judge was conducting a trial in the Soviet Union… [Tom Hayden’s final speech] never happened. It was a total fantasy for Hollywood… I never told the attorney general of the United States that we didn’t have a case. We knew that we had more than enough evidence to convict… The only question was could we ever get to a verdict… [The defendants announced before the trial that] people should come to this trial and fight the pigs in Chicago just like they did a year ago… We were not surprised by any of it… They were revolutionaries, and they were going to try to destroy our trial. And they did a damn good job of it.”Richard Schultz Interview, The Chicago Tribune, 10/20/2020
These events are addressed in the film but don’t come off as the activists instigating to render a mistrial. The movie is clearly framed to emphasize how justified they were from the beginning and how the system as a whole is dedicated to hushing criticism against it. Maybe the Chicago 7 were railroaded to some degree and deserved to be acquitted but the reality on the ground was more complicated in ways that weren’t flattering to the antiwar protestors. Just as there are injustices that exist in the legal system today, the rioting of the past summer is not justified by legitimate concerns when innocent people are robbed and killed.
Trial of the Chicago 7 parses out the nuances for characters it thinks are justified and condemns characters it doesn’t like. It reveals very little and says very little. It lionizes political radicals and demeans the system of justice that’s designed to imperfectly mediate complicated legal questions. It’s a slick courtroom drama that works as a film but feels cold as a piece of political art. All it does is to serve as a quick defense of modern radicalism by appealing to the radicalism of a simpler time. In doing so, it only serves to obfuscate already complicated matters with simple moral stakes.
Christopher Hitchens once said “history is a tragedy, and not a morality tale.” In Aaron Sorkin’s world, reality is self determined and, in the words of Paul Krugman, just so happens to have a liberal bias.