By Jim Tortolano
Any movie or television show written and/or directed by Aaron Sorkin is bound to be literate, thought-provoking and timely. But his work sometimes gets mired in the left-lane of partisan politics and magical ideologies.
But when Sorkin can steer a nuanced and balanced course, the effect can be satisfying and enlightening. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” represents just that.
If you’re just now hearing of this film, welcome to the brave new world of coronavirus-era cinema economics. Originally planned to be released in movie houses all across the nation, it launched in September when not one movie house in a 100 was open for business. So it went to Netflix and the cafeteria consumer culture where movies go to creep along slowly, one streaming video choice after another.
“The Trial” is a fictionalized version of the riots that accompanied the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the legal actions that followed it. Flashbacks can be confusing, but in this instance, it’s like the peeling of an onion, revealing the details and motivations of the parties involved.
As some of you over the age of 50 may know, protesters converged on the Windy City to rally against not only the Vietnam War, but against aspects of American culture they found troubling. This time, it’s the radical left that’s on the outside, just as the radical right tried to gain power on Jan. 6.
After the uproar in Chicago and when the new Nixon Administration took office, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted and arrested a group of men in connection with the August 1968 protest. What started as a peaceful event degenerated into a melee between over-aggressive police and overexcited and – in some cases – overmedicated demonstrators.
In a big and talented cast, it’s the “Hoffmans” who stand out the most. Sacha Baron Cohen (remember “Borat”?) is Abbie Hoffman, the clown prince of stand-up radicalism, and Frank Langella is Judge Julius Hoffman, the sort of “hanging judge” you least want to see when the bailiff says, “all rise.”
Jeremy Strong is Jerry Rubin, founding member of the off-kilter Youth International Party, which seeks to defeat the military-industrial complex through the use of arch satire. Jerry and Abbie are the Marx Brothers of the Sixties, trying to overturn the values of the Greatest Generation with in-your-face mockery. All of this exasperates Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, who worries – with good reason – that all future generations will remember about the riot at the ’68 convention and the ensuing trials is the outlandish behavior of the defendants and not any of the issues that may have set all these events in motion.
Although Sorkin clearly wants to portray the Seven in a sympathetic light, he’s not blind to the degree to which they and others acted naively and dangerously, creating a fearful momentum.
It might be possible to discover some parallels between the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the violence outside the Democratic convention. It’s mostly a false equivalency, but, as Sorkin’s screenplay ably points out, once emotions are elevated and a mob assembles, it’s hard to tell what the consequences will be when those forces ignite.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is rated R for language, violence and use.
Categories: Arts & Leisure