Must we turn every piece of American history into a thought-provoking biopic? This was the question I found myself asking as the credits rolled on Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven, released to Netflix this past October. The film follows eight men put on trial for conspiring to start riots while protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among the accused are infamous Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Students for a Democratic Society’s founder Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
The film begins in the aftermath of the Chicago riots. With Nixon elected into office, Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) assigns Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to prosecute the aforementioned protest organizers, sending a message condemning the public’s objections to the Vietnam War. Once the trial begins, scenes cut back and forth between the courtroom deliberations and the Chicago protests themselves.
The tone Sorkin sets for the film feels out of place from the beginning. A snappy score of upbeat music seems inappropriate accompanying archival footage detailing the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Dialogue pulling from original court documents is awkwardly pieced together with Sorkin’s creative interpretations. Consequently, lines try painfully hard to turn courtroom jargon into quippy jokes.
Throughout the film, audiences are given a lot of telling without showing. The plot frequently relies on dialogue to fill in action taking place off-camera. We hear about the Chicago riots in court, but only see bits and pieces of the event in scattered flashback scenes. Jokes and plot-points feel over explained, as if Sorkin doesn’t trust his audience to “get” the film’s message. Unsurprisingly, watching dramatic back-and-forths unfold between a dozen male characters becomes exhausting within the film’s first hour. Every courtroom conversation seems to entail one character being interrupted by another character, and then being interrupted by another character.
Perhaps the film’s overdramatized feel should be expected from a director like Aaron Sorkin. After all, this is the same man who brought us seven seasons of political drama in The West Wing. Over the top emotionality works great for Sorkin’s past projects, but only because previous subject matter was never life or death. The origin story of Facebook in his 2010 film The Social Network was high stakes, but never “fate of American democracy” high stakes.
Unsurprisingly, what holds the film together is its all-star cast. Most notably, performances from Cohen and Redmayne overcome the messy plotline that works against them. Each time their characters faced off in heated arguments, I found myself drawn back into the plotline and rooting for their characters’ acquittals.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven wants so badly to relate American protests and civil unrest from the past with that of the present. In some ways, this goal is accomplished. There are undoubtedly clear parallels between this film and the crucial protests against racial injustice we have seen in 2020. But that very pressure to deliver a message of inspiration leaves out the less than perfect realities of political action, making the film feel inauthentic and idealistic. The conclusion attempts to wrap every conflict up neatly, implying the same to be true of the injustices we face in our country today. Ultimately, the politicization of our nation’s courts and the complexities of American democracy cannot be simplified to one all encompassing solution at the end of a movie.
This critique might also reflect an issue with the biopic genre in general. The very nature of narrative filmmaking requires a rising and falling action, finished off with a satisfying conclusion. When executed in this formulaic manner, films like The Trial of the Chicago Seven miss the mark in terms of realisticness. At the very least, Sorkin leaves his audience with a call to action. After all, worthwhile political action starts with individuals.