Demonstrators clashing with police. Black men violently silenced. A court battle waged by a vindictive administration. A fraught election year, a fast-climbing death toll, a nation in turmoil. These are a few of the things we see and hear in "The Trial of the Chicago 7," Aaron Sorkin's slick, garrulous new movie about the bloody chaos that erupted outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trumped-up legal circus that followed. The echoes of our political present, booming at us from across half a century, are about as subtle as the shouts we hear during the protests and later on the courthouse: "The whole world is watching!" Indeed it was, as it is now.
I suppose that makes "The Trial of the Chicago 7" what you might call timely, a word that threatens to become meaningless with overuse - particularly in film discourse, where timeliness often functions as a glib signifier of importance, currency and presumed Oscar-worthiness. You may well chuckle when Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), one of the eight anti-Vietnam War protestors indicted on charges of conspiracy to incite a riot, describes the 1968 clash as "the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I'm concerned, it's an honor just to be nominated." He's embellishing a quote attributed to another defendant, Jerry Rubin; he's also referencing a much more frivolous media spectacle that some hope will be in the cards for this movie come 2021.
But even if "The Trial of the Chicago 7" qualifies as catnip for Oscar voters - it's a juicy courtroom drama, a sweeping '60s panorama, an epic of liberal hand wringing and an all-you-can-eat actors' buffet rolled into one - it also, to its credit, rarely exaggerates its own topicality. Sorkin, who wrote the script in 2007 (and eventually inherited the directing reins from Steven Spielberg), understands that the story being told here is never not timely. And he and his collaborators have applied their considerable skill to telling that story in as crisp, cogent and streamlined a fashion as possible and to let the present-day implications follow on their own.
Given the sprawling cast of characters and the juxtaposition of multiple time frames, the clarity of the result is bracing, and maybe also a bit deflating. One of the pleasures and shortcomings of this kind of Hollywood history lesson is that it seeks to impose a sense of order on events, movements and personalities that are by nature complicated and resistant to easy summary. Curiously, that narrative strategy subliminally mirrors the tactics of the prosecution, which contends - at the insistence of President Richard Nixon's newly installed attorney general, John Mitchell (John Dolan) - that eight men deliberately masterminded and instigated the 1968 unrest. It's a dubious allegation, privately doubted even by the lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who notes that some of the defendants had never even met before crossing state lines into Illinois.
We meet them ourselves in a sleek opening montage that immediately casts doubt on the notion that these guys could have agreed on where to have lunch, let alone how to stage a revolution. In one corner are the Students for a Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), who head to Chicago eager to show off the moral and political seriousness of a younger generation of activists. Thumbing their noses at seriousness, meanwhile, are Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Rubin (Jeremy Strong), whose raucous Yippie spirit - why not protest a war and throw a massive free-love celebration in Grant Park? - will make them the undisputed celebrities of the whole debacle.
Despite their very different aims and methods, the men intend a peaceful protest. Their commitment to nonviolence is echoed by another defendant, the conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and upheld by two mild-mannered scapegoats, Weiner and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), who have been indicted mainly to make the other defendants look worse. The worst-looking one of all, in the prosecution's racist estimation, is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, who's so incensed at being dragged into the proceedings that he refuses to be represented by the defense's hard-working attorneys, William Kunstler (an especially good Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
Seale, forcefully played by Abdul-Mateen, makes clear that he's the defendant with the most to lose. He's also the one most openly scornful of the judge, Julius Hoffman, whose glowering pettiness and bias against the defense couldn't come through more clearly in Frank Langella's supremely belligerent performance. Seale's eventual mistrial - granted only after he is physically bound and gagged, in a horrifying re-enactment of the trial's most troubling episode - accounts for how the Chicago Eight ultimately became the Chicago Seven, though the numbers have rarely been consistent. (The case was dramatized in HBO's starry 1987 docudrama "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8" and revisited in the 2007 semi-animated documentary "Chicago 10," which added Kunstler and Weinglass to the group's ranks.)
Like those earlier films and other works that have attempted to make dramatic sense of this jaw-dropping story, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is at pains to balance the showboating courtroom theatrics with a deeper consideration of context. Sorkin takes pains to establish the political-historical frenzy of the late '60s, with early nods to the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the ever-rising number of American soldiers being sent to Vietnam. But he keeps the fallout at a tasteful, dramatically strategic remove. The tumultuous four-day convention itself is revisited in archival clips and scripted flashbacks, with a heavy assist from Alan Baumgarten's agile editing and Daniel Pemberton's suitably anguished score. But the full trauma of the riot itself, culminating in ghastly images of blue-helmeted cops assaulting protestors with nightsticks and tear gas, is only briefly allowed to break the movie's meticulously well-argued surface.
Although Sorkin made a fine directing debut with 2017's crackling "Molly's Game," it's hard not to wonder if a different filmmaker might have productively shifted the balance here, perhaps by treating his dazzling words as the movie's skeleton, not its star. But as was already clear from "A Few Good Men" and "The Social Network," the legal drama has always been Sorkin's sweet spot, the most natural fit for his pugilistic, process-oriented writing style. (The trial here needs little of his comic embellishment to descend into full-blown farce; some of the script's funnier moments, including a verbal tussle between the two Hoffmans, emerge more or less intact from the court transcripts.) The result is an unsurprising feast of Sorkinese, full of insults and rebuttals, argumentation and oneupsmanship, and it's never more satisfying than when Michael Keaton turns up in a beaut of a performance whose context I wouldn't dream of giving away.
The courtroom's behavioral divide - between the unruly, disruptive language of protest and the judge's authoritarian insistence on civility and order - is shown to be an implicitly political one. Another version of it plays out between the two most adversarial defendants: Tom Hayden, brought to impassioned life by Redmayne, and Abbie Hoffman, whose streak of performative anarchy is such a natural fit for Cohen that it makes the actor's restraint all the more gratifying. (He and Strong's genially stoned-out Rubin make a crack comic duo.) Hayden wants to play by the rules and effect meaningful change within the system; Hoffman mocks the idea of decorum and seeks a more radical overhaul. Whether or not that strikes you as a nod to contemporary liberal-progressive animus, it's one more reminder, as if we needed reminding, of just how frustrating the pursuit of solidarity can be.
"The Trial of the Chicago 7," smoothly entertaining as it is, may also elude clear consensus. Democracy is a messy business, but an element of real, lived-in messiness seems beyond this movie's purview. Everything runs like clockwork, even the requisite soul searching: Nearly every major character is forced to grapple with some inner weakness, some unexamined hypocrisy, and you can practically see their arcs snapping into place from the opening frames. The dialogue pops but rarely overlaps, the way it does in real life, because if it did, you wouldn't be hearing the voice of Sorkin the screenwriter, with his perfectly engineered setups and comebacks. You might actually risk hearing the voices of the characters themselves.
'THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7'
Rated: R, for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: Out Friday in limited release where theaters are open; available Oct. 16 on Netflix
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