Monday, November 2, 2020

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7

Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alan Metoskie, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Sasha Baron Cohen and Noah Robbins in The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Tremendously entertaining and affecting, The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (and streaming on Netflix), is a first-rate crowd-pleasing zeitgeist picture like On the Waterfront and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There hasn’t been one of those in a long time – perhaps since The Social Network, which Sorkin wrote and David Fincher directed a decade ago. For all his gifts, Sorkin has a weakness for editorializing, but he didn’t indulge it in The Social Network and he doesn’t here either. He knows he doesn’t need to. The liberal audience can hardly watch this account of the 1969 trial of (originally) eight men, almost all of them young, accused of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – a notorious travesty of the justice system presided over by a prejudiced, unethical, incompetent judge, Julius Hoffman, that became a signpost in the chronicle of anti-Vietnam protest – and not think of contemporary assaults on justice and ethics and contemporary protests. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is to our current political horror show what Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, set in a 1970 version of Korea, was to the culture of the Vietnam era, but Sorkin doesn’t even do as much as Altman did to forge the link between the two wars by piling on put-on comedy and slipping in a few seventies references (like a shot of the players in the centerpiece football game passing a joint). Sorkin plays it straight. That the movie is as funny as it is bubbles naturally out of the material, which had its own put-on clowns, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), two of the four co-founders of the Yippies (as the Youth International Party was popularly called). They make jokes throughout the trial, even showing up at one point in judicial robes; when the pissed-off judge demands that they remove them, they do so without a murmur, revealing cop uniforms underneath. 

The eight defendants are yoked together at the command of Attorney General John Mitchell (played, in a striking cameo, by the familiar character actor John Doman), who cherry-picks the young prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to present the people’s case under the supervision of his boss Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie). (Foran was the official chief prosecuting attorney.) Mitchell assumes the men can be tried under what has recently become known as the Rap Brown law (based on the prosecution of black activist H. Rap Brown for inciting a riot in Cambridge, Massachusetts), which assumes that one person crossing state lines with the intention of causing mischief is dangerous enough to be put on trial. Schulz is a straight arrow with an ethical compass and strong doubts that he can make the case (Brown’s prosecutors were unable to); he doesn’t realize that he has an unofficial loose-cannon ally in Judge Hoffman. His defendants are a strange mix whose only common bond is their fervent anti-war sentiment. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), sober and eloquent revolutionaries, represent the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). Hayden has no use for the Yippies, especially Abbie, whose dedication to the anti-war cause he thinks is mere excuse for showmanship and ego and whose stand-up antics he finds distracting, just as he believes that Abbie’s “cultural revolution” is a distraction from the real political one the SDS advocates. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), older than the other defendants, leads the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; he’s a family man who adheres with religious devotion to Martin Luther King’s doctrine of non-violence.

Most of the participants are unsure why activists John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), a chemistry Ph.D. and a social work Master’s respectively, have been charged along with the others, including Froines and Weiner themselves, but Weiner assures Froines, “This is the Academy Awards of protest, and it’s an honor just to be nominated.” (Abbie’s explanation for their inclusion is that they’re there for dramatic contrast: the jury can feel better about convicting the defendants they find easier to dislike.) Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has been arrested for the murder of a police officer in Connecticut (a frame-up that he eventually gets out of), was in Chicago for a grand total of four hours during the convention; his being tied to the charge of inciting a riot is a transparent attempt to connect the Panthers, notoriously targets of the FBI and the Justice Department. He refuses the services of William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), who is defending the other seven, and spends the trial loudly insisting that he has been denied his right to counsel – cries that Judge Hoffman answers with contempt charges. The reason the group became known as the Chicago 7 rather than the Chicago 8 is that Schulz himself, who in the movie is quietly appalled by Hoffman’s treatment of Seale, finally argues successfully for separating his trial out from that of the others.

Sorkin narrates the story of the trial by intercutting the increasingly outrageous proceedings in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom with flashbacks to the Chicago protests, and often he cross-cuts between different versions of the same event. For example, we see Hayden’s exhorting his constituents while Abbie, with Lenny Bruce-like charisma, presents it to a group of spellbound listeners. Sometimes we hear the testimony of prosecution witnesses while we see dramatic re-enactments of the incidents they’re addressing. The most fascinating example is the testimony of Daphne O’Connor (Caitlin FitzGerald), one of three undercover agents who were successful in infiltrating the anti-war parties. O’Connor picks Jerry up at a bar and gets him to fall for her; in one of the flashbacks, as the leaders of the protest are being cut off by aggressive phalanxes of Chicago cops and trying to figure out how to get to Lincoln Park, its designated focus, without being pummeled by police sticks, she struggles to add her advice, and we can see how much she’s been affected by the clear danger to the protesters. In his cross-examination Kunstler tries to get her to admit that what she witnessed was Abbie and Jerry trying to lead the protesters away from the cops rather than attempting to engage them with the intention of starting a riot. Her loyalty to her bosses prevents her from telling the truth but FitzGerald lets us see what she’s thinking and not saying. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Sorkin’s celebrated dramatic instincts have never been displayed more electrically than in his presentation of the series of events that led to the violence in the streets of Chicago. (The exemplary editing is by Alan Baumgarten.) He’s structured the film so that as a courtroom drama it leads inexorably to Kunstler’s discovery of the role John Mitchell’s hatred of his predecessor, Ramsey Clark, may have played in the prosecution – and to Kunstler’s recognition that, as Clark puts it, he’s the defense’s star witness, since his conclusions – buried when Nixon’s election puts him and his team out of work – about the nature of the riot are distinctly different from Mitchell’s claims. (Clark is played by Michael Keaton, whose two scenes are so sensational that they threaten to upset the balance of the picture.) And emotionally the film leads to a resolution of the tension between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman in which Abbie proves (as Kunstler has already argued) that he’s neither as stupid nor as frivolous as Hayden thinks he is. This scene depends on Abbie’s unraveling a statement of Tom’s that the prosecution is using as evidence that the riot was incited by the leaders of the protest and not by Mayor Daley’s cops; it’s the best piece of revelatory wordplay, maybe, since The Conversation.

Occasionally on this site I’ve dedicated a post to a movie I think of as a master acting class; without doubt The Trial of Chicago 7 qualifies for that list. Midway through I stopped counting the number of terrific pieces of acting. Most of the chatter has been about Sacha Baron Cohen, though people who are surprised that he’s such a good dramatic actor may not have seen him as the Beadle in Tim Burton’s otherwise misbegotten movie of Sweeney Todd – or they may not realize how thin the line is between what a brilliant comic impersonator and a character actor does. The performances that ground the movie, aside from Cohen’s, are those of Redmayne, Gordon-Levitt, Rylance and Lynch, each so deeply encased in his character that you stop seeing the actor altogether. (Lynch is such a chameleon that he’s in danger of not getting the recognition he deserves for his work in movies like this one, Zodiac and The Founder.) The one that is certainly a tour de force is Frank Langella’s as Julius Hoffman – another tour de force, since his stage and film career has practically been littered with them. I wouldn’t want to omit mention of Jeremy Strong (from The Big Short and the TV series Masters of Sex), whose comic style contrasts Cohen’s; Alex Sharp (who played Christopher on Broadway in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time); Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the doomed Fred Hampton, chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panter Party, who sits behind Bobby Seale in court and counsels him unofficially in the absence of legal representation; or that wonderfully understated actor Ben Shenkman as Kunstler’s co-counsel Leonard Weinglass. Alice Kremelberg (from Orange Is the New Black) makes a potent impression as Bernardine, who discharges secretarial duties in the SDS offices with a wry remove that is eventually challenged. I was unfamiliar with Yahya Abdul-Manteen, but if there’s still such a thing as a star-making performance God knows his Seale ought to be one. The scene where Kunstler and Hayden visit him in jail to tell him that Hampton has been shot down in a police raid is one of the film’s emotional high points.

Are there moments of sentimentality in this picture? Well, yes, but it’s a rabble-rouser by nature. The scene where Dellinger, finally roused to such a pitch of outrage that he knocks down the guard who’s trying to restrain him, whispers, “I’m sorry” across the courtroom to his son, is so beautifully played that I think we could say it transcends sentimentality. The same could be argued about the moment when Abbie alludes to Hayden’s famous Port Huron Statement, to Tom’s amazement, and Abbie says he’s read everything Tom has ever written. The fact is that the story of the trial glitters with dramatic fireworks; it’s melodrama that is continually transcending itself because, you know, it’s history. When Seale, after weeks of having his pleas for counsel ignored, gets sufficiently worked up to tell the judge to fuck himself, Hoffman orders the guards to take him out and “deal with him as he should be dealt with”; the guards bring Seale back bound and gagged. The scene, which Sorkin stages and shoots superbly, is blazingly powerful; the image, which stuns the courtroom into silence, echoes through African American history and obviously through its most recent chapters. Hayden wins the privilege of making a final statement on behalf of the Chicago 7; the judge, who expresses his respect for this one defendant because he hasn’t made a spectacle of himself in the courtroom, instructs him to keep his words respectful and non-political. Tom repeats his directions and then responds by reading off the names of all the young men who have died in Vietnam during the three-and-a-half month duration of the trial. It’s a great, grandstanding moment, like the one at the end of In the Name of the Father where Emma Thompson recites the number of months that each of the unjustly imprisoned defendants has spent in prison on trumped-up charges of being involved in the IRA bombing of a London pub. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is deeply satisfying. It’s the finest American picture I’ve seen this year.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment