Any time a story from history is retold for the big screen (or, these days, for the little screen), one fundamental question must be answered: Why now?
Filmmakers don’t (or shouldn’t) revisit the past just because they think it’s kind of a cool story that will make bank at the box office. Real people’s lives are being mined for material, after all. So if you’re going to retell a historical tale, you need a reason: parallels to the present, or inspiring heroism, or a lesson of some kind.
We can ask this question of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and find several obvious answers. Sorkin — one of the few screenwriters whose name is a household brand unto itself — originally wrote the script back in 2007, but the project got shelved during the 2007–’08 writers’ strike. He picked it up again in 2018 with a presidential election in the middle distance, and it’s easy to understand why: The film is a lightly fictionalized courtroom drama based on the six-month trial of seven men accused of conspiring to cross state lines and incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And it rings all those “now more than ever” bells that Hollywood has loved to ring (and ring and ring) during the Trump era, albeit with a little more finesse than some.
Does The Trial of the Chicago 7 work as a film? Sometimes! From his TV series The West Wing to movies like The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Sorkin is indelibly associated with a few idiosyncrasies, two of which matter most here: a tight, wordy dialogue style (often fired off while speakers hurry from one place to another), and grandstanding characters with progressive but rarely radical notions of American politics. By those markers, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is identifiably Sorkin’s work, sometimes to its detriment, particularly as the movie rounds third base and heads for home plate.
But the movie is effective in spite of its foibles. It’s an ensemble piece that tells a complex story cleanly. And even its missteps hint as to why Sorkin chose to return to this historical moment now.
Sorkin puts a Hollywood gloss on the story of the Chicago 7. It’s mostly successful.
The Chicago 7, played in the movie by a uniformly outstanding cast, were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). All seven men were activists who used different tactics but shared the same goal: to end the war in Vietnam. (I don’t know if Cohen and Strong are the best of the bunch, but their performances suggest they’re having an immense amount of fun; Lynch is particularly good, as well, reminding me he’s one of the great unsung character actors of our time.)
Representing different organizations and not coordinating with one another, they all traveled to Chicago in 1968 to participate in protests outside the DNC that would grab the attention of not so much the delegates as the entire country. Denied permits by the city, their demonstrations ended with police beatings and bloodshed, which they contended were started by Chicago police. The federal government charged the men with conspiracy and crossing state lines with intent to start a riot, and the trial began in September 1969 under Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
An eighth man, Bobby Seale (a stunning Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also in Chicago to speak at a demonstration. He was swept into their case, and famously petitioned the court to delay the trial so the attorney of his choosing could have gallbladder surgery. After he was denied by Judge Hoffman, he petitioned to represent himself, which the judge also denied, and then continued to loudly protest this breach of his rights during the hearing. Eventually, he was bound and gagged in the courtroom; then he was severed from the trial altogether, leaving the other seven men as co-defendants.
The introductions of all of these men, and the first half of the film, are mainly devoted to showing their different styles of anti-war activism. Hoffman and Rubin are the disruptive hippies; Dellinger the peaceful grownup; Hayden the principled statesman; Davis the young radical; and Froines and Weiner are just happy to find themselves in such august company. What they all have in common is their intense hatred for the Vietnam War and the fact that they are white.
Seale, in clear contrast, is Black. And we’re meant to understand that the judge’s actions toward him — which differ from the way he treats the seven white defendants — are part of the long-running American tradition of justice lifting her blindfold.
At the center of the trial is the men’s attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, tremendous as always) and the government prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The latter is a character who, by all accounts, has been substantially altered for this film, presumably to transform him into an avatar for those in the audience inclined to cock an eyebrow at the defendants. The historical record suggests Schultz was more of a hard-driving idealogue than the even-handed attorney we meet in The Trial of the Chicago 7, who gets to play the part of, if not a hero, at least a Pretty Good Guy by the end.
Softening Schulz is one of a number of tweaks to the facts that Sorkin makes for the film, something he has done plenty of times in the past; The Social Network, which might be his best script, plays very fast and loose with characters and events alike. Sorkin’s aim is to tell a good story, and reality does not always comply. The fun of being a screenwriter is that you get to create reality.
There’s a reason we need these reminders of the past
How you feel about Sorkin’s historical liberties will probably determine how you react to this film. Not because anyone thinks The Trial of the Chicago 7 should have been a documentary — there have already been several about the same sequence of events, and you can stream them if you like — but because Sorkin takes those liberties to fit this tale to the contours of the classic Hollywood courtroom drama. And classic Hollywood courtroom dramas have to end in triumph, the underdog winning out over those of whom society approves.
I was with the film right till the end, when it makes this heel turn, which I think is ineffective — or, at least, could have been more effective handled another way, one that would probably have involved hewing more closely to the facts. Sorkin doesn’t change the outcome of the trial, but the way he moves pieces of history around is clearly bent toward turning The Trial of the Chicago 7 into a Hollywood tale of underdog courtroom triumph. (I don’t want to spoil the movie’s beats, but I will say that Sorkin’s placement of events near its conclusion, combined with the requisite swelling triumphal music, shifts the tone of The Trial of the Chicago 7 into the kind of fairy tale that I’d hoped the movie would avoid.)
But the way he ends the film gives me the sense that Sorkin’s answer to the “why now?” question would be simple: Because very little has changed. The forces that tried to pin the Chicago 7, not to mention Bobby Seale, to the wall are still active and powerful. We hear a lot of the same rhetoric today. And retelling the story has an effect — especially when you put a bunch of movie stars in it and send it to Netflix, where it’s bound to be seen by a lot of people.
Maybe Sorkin’s idea is to stir people to action. But I think the movie answers the question of “why now” a little differently. For people like me — a 30-something whose parents were still in grade school when this monumental trial went down — a glossy Hollywood movie like The Trial of the Chicago 7, about things I can’t remember and that many people would like society to forget, can do something truly useful.
Here’s why: In my adult lifetime, I’ve lived through 9/11, various unending wars, a memorable uptick in blatant hate toward ethnic and religious minorities, mounting environmental insecurity, and multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” recessions. That’s without even mentioning Donald Trump’s disastrous, norms-obliterating administration, which has had the additional effect of destroying the trust many Americans below the age of 40 once had in governmental, social, and religious institutions. From my side of the age divide, more often than not, things seem pretty bleak.
I’ve responded by dipping back into history — specifically, by going back a half-century, to right around the late 1960s. What I’ve found there is depressing, and a little comforting. Depressing because much of what we hear in public discourse today about law and order, radicals, riots, policing, voter suppression, and all the rest is just ripped out of the past and barely even repackaged. What we see on the news isn’t even a reboot; it feels like a lazy rerun, sped up by 50 percent.
But comforting because it destroys the fanciful notion peddled by too many leaders that things were better not all that long ago. Studying this history puts our current reality on a continuum with the past, rather than representing it as a uniquely terrible time in human history. We know the world we are inheriting is a wreck; it’s useful to understand exactly why, and to see which myths we hear from grandstanding politicians made it so.
And retellings like The Trial of the Chicago 7 are an invitation to imagine which threads of goodness we can hang onto. Sorkin’s fairy-tale ending is, I think, a bit of a misstep, shifting the tone away from sobriety toward something significantly more self-congratulatory.
But one theme his chosen ending underlines is that, at least in his rendering, the fight over Vietnam and the fight over policing and the fight over who matters to the law is, ultimately, a fight about who is worth honoring. Those who are lost in political fights are too often those who fell on battlefields or in parks or city streets, caught in a firestorm they didn’t start. Honoring them is an act of revolution — and The Trial of the Chicago 7 argues that the fight to keep them from being lost in the first place has been going on a long, long time.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.