Title: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Describe This Movie In One "Book Revue" Quote:
THE WOLF: You can't do this to me! I'm a citizen, see!
Brief Plot Synopsis: Incarcerated radicals struggle to become free. Free radicals. Is this thing on?
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 3 [Pentagon] demons out of 5.
Tagline: "Based on a true story."
Better Tagline: "White riot, I wanna riot/White riot, a riot of our own"
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In 1968, a group of young leftists organized a protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The protesters fought with police and the situation devolved into a riot.
Eight men (David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and Lee Weiner) were tried for inciting a riot. And if you're counting eight, you're not wrong. Seale would eventually get a separate trial.
"Critical" Analysis: With his new courtroom drama,The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin has come full circle. But unlike his feature film debut, A Few Good Men, Sorkin's latest has to rely on actual events instead of dramatic witness confessions. This works to the film's advantage ... until it doesn't.
Sorkin, of course, is a practiced hand at writing lawyerly dialogue. Trial is only his second directorial effort, however, so the real test is how he marries his trademark snappy repartee to helming a film. It doesn't hurt that he's assembled a stellar cast. There's Mark Rylance as attorney William Kuntsler, Eddie Redmaye (Haden), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Seale), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton as former AG Ramsey Clark, and John Carroll Lynch (Dellinger), to name a few.
And Sorkin's goal is pretty clear. By touching on current hot button issues like free speech, the oppression of black Americans, and police brutality, he's taking a scattershot approach in an attempt to hit that sweet spot of relevance that was briefly his during The West Wing but ended up a swing and a miss in The Newsroom.
It doesn't help that those earlier efforts were egregiously fictional in their own ways. West Wing crafted a Hollywood version of a White House where educated and well-intentioned people work for the betterment of all Americans, which was always disconnected from reality but has become comically so in the last four years. Meanwhile, The Newsroom was basically three seasons of George Costanza's "jerk store."
Some of that revisionism creeps in here. For example, Dellinger never experienced a violent courthouse reckoning of his pacifism (in full view of his impressionable son, no less), and Frank Langella's portrayal of Judge Julius Hoffman suggests dementia when the real-life Hoffman was simply regarded as an asshole.
The movie itself presents a highlight reel of trial events (Hoffman and Rubin showing up to court in judicial robes, Seale being bound and gagged by bailiffs), yet tries to maintain a playwright's focus (of particular attention is the conflict between Haden and Hoffman's approach to revolution). But a real trial doesn't hit those dramatic beats, and if you're sacrificing fidelity for theatrical, why base your movie on actual events at all?
Still, Sorkin is still a hell of a writer, and the performers rise to the material. Rylance, Abdul-Mateen, and Keaton especially shine (the mutual loathing between Ramsey Clark and sitting AG John Mitchell, played by John Doman, is hilarious). He's not a bad director either, but by taking on such a massive undertaking, he can't help but cut corners.
And the further we get from the '60s, the harder it is for filmmakers of Sorkin's vintage to shoehorn that decade into current events. The actual details of the prosecution of Hoffman, Rubin, Haden, et al. is fascinating, sure, but we have plenty more current examples of all the issues addressed. Hell, if we're just talking about police abuses and the plight of African-Americans, you don't have to go back in time more than 24 hours.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now playing in select theaters. It will be released on Netflix on October 16.
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