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Sorkin mishandles the perfect story with ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

| Monday, October 19, 2020

Liya Blitzer | The Observer

The opening of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the best part of the film. The fast-paced montage of historical clips, each presenting a new hopeful leader calling for unity and change only for the next clip to show them getting gunned down, is punctuated by scenes of the violence in Vietnam and the draft, finally ending with Aaron Sorkin’s quick dialogue setting the stage for the climactic event of a generation — the protest outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Known for his long-winded monologues usually featuring an upper-class white man explaining how the world should be, one would think that Sorkin, the director and writer of the film, would have been freed by the student protest movement of the ’70s. Instead, he was stifled by it. Sorkin would have been better off creating a fictional story where he could imprint his outdated brand of liberalism at free will, but instead, he put his beliefs in other peoples’ mouths.

Regardless, the performances in this film are immaculate. Eddie Redmayne is charming and beautiful, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a reliably solid performance and Sacha Baron Cohen offers a portrayal of activist Abbie Hoffman that is so historically accurate that it becomes a little eerie at times. Every time the courtroom atmosphere grows stale, the film moves along, making the over two-hour runtime tolerable. This movie is dripping with talent and relevance — they filmed scenes depicting police violence against protestors only to see them on the nightly news a few months later. But this movie isn’t about 1968; it’s not about the riots or the Chicago 7; it’s not about a corrupt criminal justice system ignoring the Bill of Rights and it’s not about the violence or the hope of the time or the current political atmosphere. This movie is about Aaron Sorkin.

As someone who sometimes reads the Port Huron Statement and cries, Sorkin’s portrayal of Tom Hayden in this movie is frustrating. Eddie Redmayne’s character is the laced-up alternative to the Yippies, allowing Sorkin, a stand-in, to criticize them without ever having to sympathize with the actual Tom Hayden. Historically, Hayden did not only tolerate the Yippies’ perspective and antics, he sometimes participated in them by wearing a fake goatee to court, mouthing off to the judge and at times mocking the proceedings in general. When put into context with his other works, Sorkin’s changes seem to be intentional to his message rather than just storytelling technique. He made them so he could write about the counterculture movements without ever having to actually identify with it. He wanted all of the idealism and none of the sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The fact that we allow the man who literally teaches the Masterclass on screenwriting to get away with writing script after script with few so multi-dimensional people of color or women confounds me. The historically unjust treatment of Bobby Seale, brilliantly played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II, is on full display in this film. Seale was the eighth member of the Chicago 7, and his presence led to the group being referred to as the “Chicago 8” or the “Conspiracy 8” because they were brought up on conspiracy charges. He was often the only person of color in the room, but this does not justify how Sorkin wrote his experience. Historically, the Honorable Julius Hoffman ordered Seale gagged in court after he repeatedly called out the racism in Hoffman’s denying him an attorney. In the movie, it happens following an emotional outburst in which he screams profanities following the assassination of Fred Hampton by police. This use of Black pain by Sorkin without the subsequent display of Seale’s strong rhetorical talents is shameful. The only place Sorkin even attempts to rectify his story profiting off of Seale’s pain without giving him subsequent depth is when he lectures Tom Hayden. This moment though poignant is opportunistic and also frustrating. Sorkin uses Seale as a tool to expand Hayden’s depth. Seale simply says what everyone watching and in the room knows so Sorkin can prove he himself is not racist.

There are essays, Youtube videos and even a whole TikTok account dedicated to exploring the ways in which Sorkin’s writing is sexist. I was hopeful that this criticism would have resulted in change but it did not. He opted to erase the historical and influential presence of women at both the protest and the trial in lieu of a half-baked fictional storyline involving Jerry Rubin and an undercover female cop. Historically, Rubin’s wife Mimi Leonard was dragged out of the courtroom, but in the film she’s replaced by a side story that wastes covetable storytelling space. This also means that the only female character in the film who is in more than two scenes and isn’t a secretary is a manipulative liar.

Sorkin was handed one of the most interesting stories, full of complex characters, and a star-studded cast, and he simply dropped the ball. Instead of making a film about young men and women fighting for change, he chooses to make it about infighting and his own political agenda. The movie starts with the assassination of a generations’ leaders and ends with the jailing of the next generations’, yet I spent this entire review talking about how Sorkin, someone considered one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, simply drops the ball. I wanted to write a poignant review featuring these leaders and their beliefs, how they changed their contempt for their government into action — something so many current college students can relate to. I wanted to talk about the loss of a generations’ consciousness and end with an encouraging note about how this generation’s leaders shouldn’t become complicit in the same way the seven did. But it didn’t feel right to praise Sorkin’s failure. In the end, I am just disappointed, but at least more people are learning about the Chicago 8.

Title: The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Starring: Sacha Baren Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Genre: Historical drama

Where to watch: Netflix

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5 (because the historical story really is great)

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