The Trial of the Chicago 7: Does Aaron Sorkin Matter?
“I’m on a mission to civilize.”
“How’s it going so far?”
“Progress is slow, but I’m in it for the long haul.”
This is not a quote from The Trial of the Chicago 7, but from the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s brief but zeitgeist-fueled television show The Newsroom. The contemporaneous cultural accord was that this was a thesis statement for most of Sorkin’s leads - from Daniel Kaffee to Billy Beane to [insert any West Wing character here], Sorkin gives each of his leads a righteous fight before immediately throwing a million and one obstacles in their way. But with his latest “moment in history” film - a dramatic retelling of the political trial of eight (later, seven) protestors accused of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention - we must ask ourselves if this witty repartee defines not just Sorkin’s protagonists, but the man himself. More than just to civilize, Sorkin’s mission has long been to inject his particular brand of optimistic, intellectual bullying into the lifeblood of American politics and culture. But nearly 30 years after his silver screen debut, one must ask the question: is progress really slow, or has the world just passed Aaron Sorkin by?
But let’s rewind. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s second directorial effort after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and it’s abundantly clear that the long-time screenwriter is getting more comfortable in the director’s chair. As the film moves from brief character introductions into the courtroom, Sorkin’s camera scribbles at the same pace as his pen, following the ping-pong dialogue with a mix of vitality and clarity that was notably absent in his debut just three years ago. But as the trial settles in, Sorkin displays an unsurprising and misplaced obsession with relentless verbal sparring, failing to linger in the mounting injustices and procedural gobbledygook long enough to let the ideals behind the words shine through.
In contrast to Steve McQueen’s recent courtroom drama Mangrove, Sorkin is far more interested in the titillation of the trial than the prejudice of the process. Where McQueen subverts, Sorkin leans into the tropes to find the big moments. And where Sorkin focuses on finding justice through the court system, McQueen and his characters acknowledge that very system as a foundational obstacle to achieving that justice.
But it’s another 2020 film that Sorkin evokes in his use of flashback-as-context. Just like Spike Lee used archival footage to root his Da 5 Bloods in an era of worldwide Black oppression, so too does Sorkin open his film with newsreel clips of 60s-era unrest. But where specificity is Spike’s speciality, Sorkin repeats the same images we’ve seen a million times: the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; the speeches of Nixon and LBJ, the rising tide of the Vietnam War and the anger that came with it. And where Sorkin usually specializes in narrative trickery that serves a purpose, I didn’t feel quite as safe in his storytelling hands as usual. He seemed unsure of his own use of flashbacks, weaving together multiple timelines in haphazard ways, sometimes flashing back for humor, others for story, occasionally for no real reason.
But let’s also not pretend that Sorkin is anything other than what he’s always been: popcorn politics. And when he’s at the top of his game - which he is for the majority of The Trial of the Chicago 7 - his films are a one-of-a-kind experience. As a director, he’s learned to use his trademark dialogue to physically devolve a scene, magnificently seeming to create action where there is none. As an early break from the trial demonstrates, he’s as good as ever at using conflict to elicit narrative progress while illuminating character. And despite elliding certain points that seemed worthy of emphasis, he stills knows which moments need the sort of emotional wallop that only he can deliver with his rise-and-fall, pitter-patter approach.
And then, of course, there’s the dialogue. There’s no good to be found in spoiling any of it here, so I’ll leave it at this: Sorkin expertly weaves the word “ensorcel” into an argument, and it isn’t even a top 20 line in the movie.
Sorkin assembled a cast more than able to handle his mix of philosophical waxing and witty eviscerations. Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen make strange choices as yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, but both base their portrayals in an underlying humanity so strong that they win you over by the end. Eddie Redmayne excels at flitting quickly from background to spotlight before stepping back again, a key talent for anyone in a Sorkin ensemble. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays into his type as the prosecutor, while Mark Rylance goes against his as the aggressive hippie defense attorney. It’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II who nearly steals the movie as Bobby Seale, before disappearing halfway through when the Black Panther co-founder’s trial was separated from the remaining seven.
And so we return to the question at hand: has the world moved on from Sorkin? Can we abide his cornball hopefulness in a country and a world that feel utterly devoid of reason for optimism? Is Aaron Sorkin just screaming into a void? With Netflix’s number opacity, we may never know how many eyeballs his film reaches, nevermind how many brains he persuades or hearts he touches. The Academy may come calling, as it often does, but unless anyone thinks Green Book’s questionable Best Picture victory solved race relations in America, that likely doesn’t mean much. The ultimate test, as it must nearly always be, is time. As we wait, and as Sorkin continues in his painstakingly slow mission to civilize, let’s just hope we keep getting movies as entertaining as The Trial of the Chicago 7.