Aaron Sorkin & The Trial of the Chicago 7: Creator’s Strengths & Weaknesses

Aaron Sorkin poses at a drive-in premiere for the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 in Pasadena, Calif., October 13, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Zippy, smart, fun . . . but smarmy, cutesy, and fake. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes the case for and against its creator.

Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, like most things Aaron Sorkin has written (and in this case he directed it also), zippy, smart, and fun, with the usual unmistakable left-wing agenda. You ought to know by now whether you enjoy Sorkin’s work, and if you do, this film won’t disappoint as it dramatizes the already-theatrical tale of the Chicago 7, who (along with the Black Panther Bobby Seale) were a group of self-described radicals tried on federal charges in 1969 for crossing state lines to incite rioting at the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

As with so many other Sorkin works, though, the combination of smarminess and grandstanding makes the whole meal fairly difficult to digest if you happen to be a bit skeptical about the message. As he did most unashamedly in his HBO series The Newsroom, Sorkin again rewrites history to make it more Sorkin-y: The ending is pure Hollywood and 100 percent fabricated. The beginning is a bit fake, too: Sorkin shows the incoming Nixon attorney general, John Mitchell (a sputtering John Doman), forcing indictments against the protesters in 1969, mainly because he felt insulted by his predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). In fact, the grand jury had been convened the previous year, during the Johnson administration, and you don’t set up a grand jury unless you expect indictments.

As for the middle of the film, Mark Rylance plays defense attorney William Kunstler as a soft-spoken, down-home lawyer, though Kunstler was a notoriously loud and abrasive figure, about as down-home as Chuck Schumer. Sorkin’s most dramatic episode — and this part is true — is the still-shocking moment when the judge (Frank Langella) ordered defendant Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to be bound and gagged after Seale interrupted the proceedings many times. But the film is light on the many ways Kunstler and co. made a circus of things, including calling in celebrities to offer irrelevant thoughts. Kunstler invited Judy Collins to come in and sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” from the witness stand. Abbie Hoffman, memorably portrayed with an accent like a 1940s Brooklyn gangster’s in a performance that seems likely to win an Oscar nomination for Sacha Baron Cohen, once flipped a middle finger at the judge, and Sorkin leaves that out too.

The most interesting innovation Sorkin comes up with, and I wish there had been more along these lines, is the dispute between clean-cut student revolutionary Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and shaggy Hoffman about the tactical wisdom of liberalism vs. radicalism — or rather Hayden’s brand of button-down radicalism vs. the hippie variety, with its freak flags flying, its American flags burning, its attempts to levitate the White House. Sorkin speaks through Hayden:

For the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you. They’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers . . .  they’re not gonna think of education or poverty or progress . . . they’re gonna think of a bunch of . . . foul-mouthed lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.

I’ll forgive the obvious ret-conning here, but the scene tells us a lot about the Left, which has for 50 years mistakenly believed that the American public was ready to turn the U.S. into a European social-democracy but can never agree on why the voters keep blocking this progress. Often we hear that coded racism was the reason the Republican Party would win eight of 13 presidential elections in the post-LBJ era; Sorkin thinks it was disgust with the hippie freak show. He spectacularly overestimates the endurance of hippie-hating in America’s famously short memory, just as he spectacularly underestimates the mammoth growth of the federal state to deal with injustice, education, poverty, progress, and everything else that he wants dealt with. The reason we don’t have European-style statism is that whenever Democrats start moving that way, the voters don’t like it, and stop them in their tracks.

Sorkin elicits fine performances from his cast, and as a director he is more than competent, expertly breaking up the courtroom scenes to create suspense and climactic moments by cutting back to the rioting and to Hoffman’s nightclub routines about the trial. But as usual, Sorkin disdains nuance. “Good” and “Evil” get stamped on every character’s forehead, and cuteness reigns, even though being cute and being indignant are two impulses that tend to cancel each other out. Sorkin’s heroes are warm, clever, funny, perspicacious, and nice. So even though Hayden was actually as earnest, sanctimonious, and humorless a dullard as ever appeared on the political scene, Sorkin turns him into a quip machine because he can’t help himself; Sorkin is a quip machine, he thinks quip manufacturing is the highest calling of Man, ahead maybe even of progressivism, so everyone he likes has to deal out one-liners. The people Sorkin doesn’t like are consigned to fulminating like Mr. Roper. In Sorkin’s hands, history becomes sitcom.

I’d appreciate Sorkin more if his work were a funny sitcom, but I never laugh at anything he writes. Do you? Does anyone? Armando Iannucci is even further left than Sorkin, I imagine, yet when he rewrote the Iraq War as satire in In the Loop, it was hilarious. With Sorkin, I find myself nodding along, thinking, “That’s witty. That’s clever.” And I never laugh at any of it. Nor do I ever, even for 30 seconds, forget that it’s Aaron Sorkin speaking. Even Woody Allen does not make the mistake of having every character sound like Woody Allen. The combination of cutesy one-liners and Sorkin’s looming over everything like the giant head of Al Capone in the backdrop of the poster of The Untouchables tends to undercut the alleged drama. Really, the last time I got wrapped up in a Sorkin scene was when I was on my feet applauding his one truly iconic hero: Colonel Jessup.

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