Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Sorkin, 2020)

Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Grade: D

The best case scenario for anyone watching Aaron Sorkin’s latest is that maybe, maybe, someone will be introduced to progressive American political ideology through this Hollywood bastardization of very-relevant history. Too many times, we’re given a bloated and easy-to-swallow history lesson via cinema, and Sorkin’s lifeless The Trial of the Chicago 7 is no different. 

Here, we witness a very carefully manicured depiction of the real life trial against a group of unrelated progressives who protested the 1968 Democratic National Convention, all wrongly accused of inciting a riot. Leading the pack is Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II) and liberal activist Tom Hayden (Redmayne), as well as revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong). Prosecution lies in the hands of the made-to-be sympathetic Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt), while the trial itself is judged by cartoonishly evil Judge Julias Hoffman (Frank Langella). 

It’s clear from the start that the leftists in defense are facing injustice at every turn, with as much subtlety as a cop’s baton splitting open a skull. Sorkin has somehow managed to take a truly interesting and important story and stuff it into the pristine script format of his wishes — the who, what, where, when, why made with the same sheen as an Instagram filter made to iron out any wrinkles. The true events, what really happened, clearly don’t matter, and are bent and shaped to fit exactly how a story beat should hit or when a character arc can reach its appropriate pit stops. With every frame, beat, and musical cue, we’re told what and how to feel, leaving nothing to organically rise from the narrative or its characters.

That’s not to say that this film isn’t competently made, it’s the exact opposite — it’s unrelentingly sterile. Everything looks fine, the performances are fine, it’s all just fine. It’s less a movie and more of a guidebook for budding filmmakers on how to approach cinematic language like lighting, editing, and shot distance. It’s easy to imagine a begrudged professor one day asking their students, “How do we know Tom is the hero in this scene”, with someone correctly answering, “Because the camera is looking up toward him from below and he takes up the whole frame”. If Sorkin made this movie as his final project to pass Filmmaking 101, he succeeded. 

These people and the events that took place deserve so much more than the aesthetics of a generic Made-For-TV movie. No one needs snappy dialogue or obvious music to tell us that police shouldn’t be beating unarmed protestors, or that American law is twisted into whatever pretzel the powers that be will use to dismantle anything that criticizes a Capitalist status quo. However, it’s made abundantly clear who the intended audience is based on the outrageous and braindead gotcha finale.

Wealthy white liberals who hated Donald Trump more because he was an unpresidential asshole, rather than his openly fascist policy, will adore The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s all in the same ballpark as someone retweeting a Republican politician’s old tweet that contradicts a new tweet, as if the hypocrisy alone is enough to sway death cult conservatives to their side (it won’t, they don’t care). It’s all treated as some sort of game that’s being watched from the stands, the spectators being people who will never actually be directly affected or face consequences from the game itself. It’s less life or death, more of the I’m right, you’re wrong sport. What happened with the trial, the protestors, the message of anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-war — it’s all life or death, and should be treated as such.

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