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Our mixed feelings about The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Aaron Sorkin, explained

The Netflix historical courtroom drama seems like a classic Oscar movie. Will it win?

Several white men sit at a courtroom table.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, The Goods editor Meredith Haggerty, and culture writer Aja Romano discuss The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama based on real events from 1968 and 1969.

For better or worse, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is peak Sorkin

Alissa Wilkinson: I think The Trial of the Chicago 7 may be the most “Hollywoody” of this year’s Best Picture nominees — to the point that I would have expected it to land in this category no matter when it came out. Partly that’s because there seems to be some cosmic rule that if Aaron Sorkin makes a thing, it gets nominated for awards.

But there’s something else going on here. I personally liked watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, whatever its flaws are, because it taps into a very particular cultural moment and crafts it into a story. (At times it messes with the particulars to make the story fit more of a classic inspirational courtroom drama mold; sometimes that works and sometimes, as with the ending, it does not.) And it feels to me that the world we live in today echoes the time they were living through, but in a way that’s digestible to the large sector of the Academy that actually remembers that time.

When you were watching the film, what were you thinking about? What stuck out to you?

Meredith Haggerty: This is not in the cinema spirit, but all I was thinking about during this film was what Aaron Sorkin was getting right and wrong, factually. I’m terrible at watching works about history without spending the whole runtime on Google trying to figure out what really happened — I cannot watch The Crown at all, for this reason. And since The Trial of the Chicago 7 debuted on Netflix during a pandemic and didn’t have the advantage of being a theater film, and The Newsroom created in me a particular frustration with Sorkin’s smug approach to the past, I was especially on my fact-checker horse.

I was particularly obsessed with the prosecutor Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was slotted into the Sorkin classic role of principled opposition. (Turns out, he doesn’t need or want the hero edit.)

All that, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s absolutely hurtful Boston accent.

Two men in hippie garb stride through a courtroom rotunda.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Aja Romano: Mer, you just went straight for the jugular regarding the Aaron Sorkin treatment, so I might as well unload it all upfront. I had the typical seesaw experience with this film that I feel for every Sorkin film: an initial begrudging admiration for the sheer craft and quality of the writing and the deftness with which he presents characters, careening ever more steadily into unease at the Sorkiny Sorkinness of it all, and ending up somewhere between contempt for Aaron Sorkin’s entire method of Sorkinese and self-loathing because I fell for it once more.

He’s an expert by now — has been since The West Wing — at manipulating the audience by structuring his writing as a series of set-ups for feel-good speeches that always make it seem like you and the characters are triumphantly winning a game. But it’s a game whose stakes he’s entirely constructed and controlled from the start. He doesn’t just give you these dramatic, monologic scenes of grandstanding and proselytizing, he also does so alongside his personalized smug condescending version of the narrative — in this case, his version of the historical narrative.

When I wasn’t sure what part of the narrative was false or not, I decided to assume false — and so much of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is so classically Sorkin (like the “I did it all for a hot girl” theme, the noble opponent, etc.) that it ceases to be about history at all. The film isn’t even purely the Hamiltonian refraction of history through a modern lens — although I think Sorkin wanted it to be. I think he wanted this film to be a reframing of the civil protests and civil disobedience of 1968 through the lens of the civil protests of the 2010s (The Trial of the Chicago 7 was filmed in 2019, before the 2020 protests that followed the death of George Floyd, but after the 2014 Ferguson protests and subsequent movements around the country).

Yet to have that kind of truly effective framing, you’d have to have a writer/director less self-aggrandizing, less front-and-center, less sure of yourself and your absolutist version of the narrative than Sorkin. Sorkinese as a worldview is basically a precursor to the flattening of nuanced political arguments into a series of viral “gotcha!’ tweets, where the goal is smug point-scoring that validates the audience in the moment, but the result is the skewing and gamification of political discourse. And with a narrative as malleable as the Chicago 7 trial, that entire setup ultimately feels like a cheapening of the facts and an insultingly simplified version of the real thing.

And even with all that said I’m pretty sure I liked it. Ugh. Sorkin!

Alissa: I have a strong affection for Sorkin’s particular brand of silliness; I think a lot of this may be because I never got into The West Wing, so everything I’ve seen from him has been acknowledged as goofy right off the bat. (Yes, I know there are critics who didn’t like The West Wing! Don’t send me email!) What I think of as Sorkinese, when he swerves into politics, is the phrase “right side of history,” in the sense that he thinks he knows what it is and that being on it absolves one of all kinds of other evils, including berating or humiliating female colleagues.

Then again, the man can write a zinger. I love a zinger.

I think maybe this movie is best watched as, like, a .... mood? I think that’s the right word. It sort of evokes a time and a feeling without actually accurately recounting it. I did really feel the panic and strangeness of what happened and the frustration of the weird band of defendants who are kind of all on the same side, and kind of not.

Does The Trial of the Chicago 7 have a real shot at winning Best Picture?

Alissa: I think this is why I can easily imagine the Academy going for this movie: It’s zippy, it feels like a movie, and it definitely leaves the audience feeling like they too are on the right side of things, even if they aren’t, or wouldn’t be, or even weren’t at the time. (There are a lot of people in the Academy who remember these events!)

What would it say to you if this movie were to win Best Picture? Would you be surprised? And, if there’s one thing you could change about it to feel better about that Best Picture win, what would it be? (I would remove that triumphantly swelling theme song from the end!)

Aja: It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this film won. It’s like so many films before it, like an English Patient or a King’s Speech that almost seem algorithmically calculated to punch voter buttons even though everyone knows they’ll basically vanish from the cultural landscape within a few years, and be replaced by the much more culturally significant films from that year that often never even got nominated. In previous Oscar eras, I’d have said that the only thing keeping The Trial of the Chicago 7 from winning is that Mank is even more likely to win, because the only thing the Academy loves more than a stirring “right side of history” political drama is a navel-gazing “right side of history” political drama about Hollywood.

There are so many things I’d change, Alissa! Find some more real women who were impacted by the trial and actually make them characters, instead of resorting to the Sorkin stock character of the Exasperated Woman Who Shows Up Long Enough to Yell At A Quirky Man before promptly disappearing from the film.

Tell the whole story from Bobby Seale’s perspective. Retitle it The Chicago 8th. Why not just end the film the moment he finally walks out of the courtroom, because what better way to show how clearly everything else about this trial was window-dressing for a political bitchfight that ultimately marginalized all the protesters and accomplished nothing?

However, I wouldn’t change a thing about lovely Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his pained morally conflicted little face. Historically accurate or not, what matters here is my heart.

A set for The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Bobby Seale gets short shrift in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Meredith: The Bobby Seale stuff, as I frantically Googled, really got me. You know what could be cinematic, if done correctly? Not half a scene of Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom wherein everyone — but mostly JGL — immediately realizes How Wrong This Is, but the truth of him bound and gagged for several days while supposedly upstanding people looked on, which is what actually happened. To take a pass on the drama and gravity of that actual historical detail in favor of a big fake Tom Hayden moment at the end of the film ... sometimes I think Aaron Sorkin would just be a better trial consultant than filmmaker.

There’s a question that runs under the movie — “What is this trial all for?” — and I don’t feel like Sorkin had a good and satisfying answer, because life didn’t have a good and satisfying answer. I agree with Aja that it would have been preferable to admit as much, rather than pretend that Tom Hayden made one final brave gesture, reading the names of the dead, that moved everyone in the courtroom. Nothing against Hayden, I’m interested in all of Jane Fonda’s exes! I just don’t think reality made for a very good Aaron Sorkin movie, which means Aaron Sorkin didn’t have something specific to say about reality.

It might surprise me if this movie won Best Picture, but I have proven through many an Oscar pool that I have no sense of the Academy. I would say I think Judas and the Black Messiah might be a more stylish and affecting pick about the same time period that speaks to the current moment without such hammy fists. I don’t know how anyone types with two balled-up hands, slick with old pork juice, but Sorkin really does it.

Also, I’ll note: I did still cry, when David Dellinger punched the bailiff. But I’m easily manipulated!

The thing I would change to make me happy with the prospect of this movie winning Best Picture would be what year it is now. Make it 2007 and I am really quite bowled over with the revolutionary politics here.

Alissa Wilkinson: I totally agree on the politics! (Worth noting that Bobby Seale makes a cameo — by way of being mentioned, not actually appearing — in Judas and the Black Messiah, which is just terrific.)

By the way, shout-out to John Carroll Lynch as Dellinger, who absolutely steals my particular heart — especially with that punch.

So, you’ve watched The Trial of the Chicago 7. What should you watch next?

So given everything we’ve said about The Trial of the Chicago 7: if someone really loved this movie, what would you tell them to watch next? What has the same vibe, or scratches the same itch, or covers similar territory — other than Judas and the Black Messiah — but is a little less hamfisted?

Aja: Is it too cliché to say something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? I guess it really depends on what you’re coming for. If you want the stirring courtroom drama then there’s always 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, or And Justice For All (“No, you’re out of order!”). If you want the counterculture vibe, there’s always Taking Woodstock, Almost Famous, or Hair. And if you want to learn more about the radical revolutionists at the heart of this moment in history, try the excellent documentaries Black Power Mixtape and The Chicago 10.

Meredith: If you want see Sacha Baron Cohen do a voice and a woman having more than two lines, there’s always Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. (Which, truly, I loved.)

A Few Good Men is really the standard of Sorkin courtroom drama, and he does work so much better for me when he’s not taking on history. I’m personally more of a My Cousin Vinny girl, or even a Legally Blonde, but when I want courtroom drama I turn to TV (especially The Goods both Wife and Fight). There’s always the Grishams, I suppose — especially The Firm, which is crazy long but enjoyable. They do satisfy in their way.

And if you enjoy revisionist history by well-regarded white male auteur types, there’s always Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Not to spoil it, but Tarantino tweaks the ending, too.

Alissa Wilkinson: Oh, I love all of these suggestions — what great films, a veritable education in movies right there. I’d throw in Agnes Varda’s half-hour film Black Panthers, and I quite liked the documentary Best of Enemies, which gets at the ideas animating (and exploding at) the political conventions that summer of 1968. And if what you really want is more Sorkin, then there are better films: Charlie Wilson’s War, for instance, is one of my favorites, and he also worked on the screenplay for Moneyball.

But the best courtroom drama of the last year is Mangrove, the first installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet of films (which are all streaming on Amazon Prime Video). Hits all the same notes but is far better in every way. Just watch it. You’ll see.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.

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