Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 shows two egos fighting for the soul of the left
If the titular trial of the Chicago 7 hadn’t happened, writer-director Aaron Sorkin would’ve had to invent it. It has everything that brings a spring to Sorkin’s step: the hostile contrapuntal duets of the courtroom, the urgently witty walk-and-talks, the blind spot for women. (Women exist here generally to tell their men to be careful or to entrap men while undercover for the police. Because it’s Sorkin, they do get to be as snarky as everyone else.) I’d be dishonest if I said The Trial of the Chicago 7 wasn’t engaging, though it feels a little … light. The stakes don’t seem as high as they might. We spend most of our time with eight men (if we count, as we should, Bobby Seale) and their defenders, and that’s essentially why we don’t want them to go to jail. The larger point, that the system was trying to make dissent unlawful, is somewhat glossed over in favor of the combustible (or square) personalities in play.
The movie is framed and edited so that it goes like a shot and doesn’t, for the most part, feel like a filmed play, which it unavoidably is. It’s constructed as candy for actors, and for all the showboating on display, the strongest presence is John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the sort of activist you put on the stand because he looks like the bland folks you’ve got to convince. Lynch plays Dellinger as the glue, the lifelong agitator (he was a conscientious objector during WWII) who knows exactly how far to push before the authorities will push back. He doesn’t get any grandstanding speeches. He doesn’t need them. The movie says that if your anti-war movement needs media clown princes like Abbie Hoffman, it also needs reliable potatoes like Dellinger.
Hoffman the sardonic Yippie gets the red-carpet treatment from Sorkin and from Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays him as an attention junkie who’s smarter than he lets on — and that’s part of his media image, too, the stoned goofball who can whip out quotes from Lincoln and scripture. If the movie has a lead, though, it’s Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, the presentable young man who only misspoke, telling the crowd at a heated point, “Let us make sure that if blood flows, it flows all over the city,” when he meant to say “if our blood flows,” meaning not the cops’ blood. Abbie Hoffman’s diagnosis of this statement as a grammatical whiff on Hayden’s part — dammit, man, you always forget your possessive pronouns! — is perhaps the movie’s weirdest moment of triumph.
It’s clear from the flashbacks to the event that the police herded the protestors into a fight-or-flight position, except that flight wasn’t possible. Sounds quite a bit like the tactics used by the Portland police last summer, though of course the film was written (Sorkin started work on the script in 2007) and shot (last fall) long before the widespread protests that made the movie and its story feel freshly relevant. Unlike, say, Spike Lee or Oliver Stone, Sorkin has resisted the temptation to use contemporary news footage to comment on the past (which, as Stone reminded us at the end of JFK, is prologue). Sorkin isn’t a hot-blooded activist like those two men; it’s combative dialogue and not injustice that gets his creative juices going.
Generally, Sorkin’s debates come down to two people, like Tom Cruise versus Jack Nicholson. Here, the two voices raised in anger are essentially on the same side, disagreeing on the style of revolt. You have Tom Hayden, the principled young man you’d bring home to meet your mother. And you have Abbie Hoffman, no less principled but scruffy and redolent of weed and media stunts. These opposed egos almost render Judge Julius Hoffman (in a contemptuous, near-Nixonian turn by Frank Langella) irrelevant to the fracas. Judge Hoffman can only confine the left’s bodies; Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden are fighting for their hearts and minds. In the end it’s Abbie the hound and doper and mischief-maker who takes the stand and quietly speaks for reason, while Hayden does his own brand of grandstanding by reading aloud in court the names of the American dead in Vietnam (did he really? yes and no, mostly no). Sorkin doesn’t do anything so gauche as to depict a grudging but firm climactic handshake between Tom and Abbie before the end credits, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see it.