Aaron Sorkin, bard of blowhards, poet of patriotism, orchestrator of countless West Wing walk and talks and ripped-from-the-headlines clashes of ideas, is either the exact right or exact wrong writer for our highly unsubtle historical moment. His heroes—and with the exception of Jessica Chastain’s troubled gambling entrepreneur in Molly’s Game, they are generally heroes, not heroines—have a tendency toward bluster and high sentiment. By the time their big speech arrives at the end (sometimes there is more than one, of both speeches and endings), they are always, metaphorically at least, standing at a podium hung with red, white, and blue bunting. In the less ideologically fraught days before November 2016, Sorkin’s brand of high-flown liberal rhetoric was beginning to sound square and old-fashioned. His HBO series The Newsroom, with Jeff Daniels as an embattled news anchor, struck many critics as tendentious and smug, with Sorkin serving up arguments expressly so he could win them. But in the gloves-off arena of 2020 politics, the idea of a crisply written diatribe from the left(ish) side of the aisle has a new appeal. Barn-burning speeches are a lot more rousing when the barn in question is rotted enough to require immediate burning to the ground.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday) is only Sorkin’s second time around both writing and directing a feature film, and though he continues to be better at the former than the latter, the new movie is more ambitious and livelier than the sharply written but clunkily paced Molly’s Game. This is in effect an all-star biopic, the story of not seven but eight ’60s counterculture figures who endured a protracted and highly publicized trial after the protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned violent. (One of the eight defendants, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale—here played by Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II—was severed from the case and tried on separate charges, for reasons the film powerfully dramatizes.) As their lawyer (a typically understated and riveting Mark Rylance) argues, the other seven defendants could hardly have conspired to start the riots together, given that they scarcely knew one another. Some, like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), were idealistic student organizers in the movement against the Vietnam War. Others, like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), came from a more radical wing of the left, the pranksterish group Hoffman dubbed the Youth International Party, or the “Yippies.”
The range of approaches to protest among these groups—including the militant anti-racist Panthers, represented by Seale and his second-in-command Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—provides a springboard for any number of Sorkinian debates, some in the formal atmosphere of the courtroom, some in informal settings where the young activists butt heads. The questions they clash over remain far from resolved in 2020: What exactly constitutes an effective activist practice? How and why should groups with aims as diverse as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers form a coalition at all? At what point does a protest against the police tip over into a riot by the police?
The characters’ exchanges about these issues are smart, crackling, and often funny, especially when they involve Baron Cohen’s Hoffman, an instinctive anti-authoritarian who bristles at Hayden’s faith in democratic institutions. The English comedian known for his shape-shifting impressions doesn’t quite master Hoffman’s broad Massachusetts accent, but his practical-jokester temperament is a perfect match for the character’s, bringing energy and goofy verve to what might otherwise be (and sometimes is) a stodgy courtroom drama. Moreover, clips of the real-life Hoffman show that, big as Baron Cohen plays the character, the actor isn’t just hamming it up: The charismatic leader worked audiences at public events with the timing of a stand-up comic. Strong, best known as the feckless media heir of Succession, plays Jerry Rubin as a perpetually half-stoned flower child, a naïve Harpo to Hoffman’s smartass Groucho. In a tradition dating back to the all-star pageants of classic Hollywood, nearly every role is filled by a famous face: Frank Langella plays the irascible and frequently racist judge whom Hoffman loves to needle in court while Michael Keaton shows up for a short but highly enjoyable turn as a former government official who takes the stand in the activists’ defense. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s been absent from the screen for too long, gets a much less juicy role as a conflicted prosecuting attorney.
Even less well-served by the script are this movie’s few female characters, mainly pretty hippie girlfriends who show up in flashbacks to burn bras or distribute leftist flyers. The fun, wisecracking kind of radicalism is, it seems, for one-half the population only. The film’s uninterrogated gender politics represent one of many ways in which The Trial of the Chicago 7, for all its firebrand banter, remains a fundamentally traditionalist movie. It advances no cutting-edge ideas and pushes no cinematic boundaries. But watching it at a moment when the majority of the population is moving leftward while our institutions are held hostage by a far-right minority—and when police violence continues, unchecked and unprosecuted, in the streets—provides the vicarious pleasure of watching a bunch of hyperarticulate progressives speak truth to power, and it feels pretty damn good, even if they do all talk a lot like Aaron Sorkin.