The Full Name Is “The Trial Of The Chicago 7,” But It’s Too Long For A Title
Let’s be clear: I’m a big Aaron Sorkin fan. In fact I believe he is – and here’s not a word I toss around lightly – a genius. He’s palpably influenced my writing. What I love most about him, is that, after decades of Hollywood arguing the opposite, he’s made dialogue relevant, even vital, again in TV and movies. It’s invariably snappy, funny, and above all, not afraid to be articulate. But, like most people whom I’ve let into my heart, it’s not been unfraught at times. But The Trial of the Chicago 7 is nothing short, I think, of brilliant.
Aaron Sorkin does a lot of things brilliantly. The West Wing is not only one of my favorite shows of all time, but several of his screenplays, such as Charlie Wilson’s War and his Academy Award winning The Social Network are fantastic. I admire many writers, but his writing is among the the small cohort of those that I can say has had a tangible affect on my writing. His cadences, his rhythms, his snark, have all been hard wired into part of my writing’s DNA. So any quibbles I may have are out of love and respect for the man.
Why Is This Sorkin’s Masterpiece?
Ok: first, the quibbles. And I can’t even begin to wonder how much sleep Sorkin must lose each night knowing that I have some issues with his writing. Thoughts and prayers. Aaron Sorkin’s characters tend to be fairly white hatted or black hatted. They all speak more or less in the identical speech pattern. He generally operates in a reductive moral universe. Even when his protagonists have flaws, they’re not so much flaws as foibles. The exception to this may be Mark Zuckerberg, but he’s basing this, of course, on a real man. I think his writing of romantic dialogue can be…problematic. And many of his female characters, even the many whip-smart ones, tend to be “lovably” incompetent at things or klutzy in ways his male characters male characters seldom are.
And then there’s the moral high horses his characters often ride, which the actors probably have to climb a ladder in order to just saddle up. He is a moralist (nothing wrong with that per se, so was Arthur Miller), but his moralizing and self-righteousness is often set to eleven. It’s also laced with a syrupy sentimentality (have I mentioned that I think he’s a genius? This is said out of love, dammit, LOVE!).
Where Was I? Oh Right, Why This Is Sorkin’s Best Work
Not so in this film. Yes, we know what side he’s on, and that’s fine, because 1) he’s right and 2) he allows for each of his characters to have honest to goodness flaws. Characters occasionally act contrary to expectations. There are actual moments of nuance. We’re not always sure who has the moral upper hand. Maybe no one does! I know! Some of this may be because the trial itself was so compelling that Sorkin borrowed heavily from the actual court transcripts themselves for the dialogue.
But there are plenty of scenes outside the courtroom. And here’s where Sorkin’s writing has seldom been more layered and fraught, while conceding little of its trademark wit. The acting helps. The cast contains some of the finest actors working today and is uniformly brilliant. When your cast includes Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, and Frank Langella, it’s tough to go wrong. But it is Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps, who, as the charismatic, chronically sardonic Abbie Hoffman who steals the show (though Michael Keaton gives him a run for his money as far as that goes; alas, his screen time is all too brief).
My God Is Sorkin’s Script Timely, But, Unlike The Chicago Police Department, Not In A Club You Over The Head Kind Of Way
Sorkin isn’t shy about showing us the parallels between the roiling social chaos and anger of 1968 and 2020, but he trusts his audience enough to draw them on our own. Sorkin handles this particularly well in the shocking/not really so shocking treatment of Black Panther (a superb Yahya Abdul-MAteen II) during this trial. Are there idealistic, patriotic arias for actors to chew into into? Of course, this is a Sorkin script. I doubt he’d be able to write a PSA about changing the batteries on smoke detectors without sticking one of those in. But they are relatively few in this script. Instead, Sorkin favors the dialectical approach: Scenes of fully dimensional people pushing back on one another’s worldview. This is especially effectively done throughout between Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Cohen’s Hoffman.
What’s most effective, I think for me, and why I think this is Sorkin’s most mature and balanced piece of writing, is that he takes a subject matter that lends itself to adding to the cynical and divisive view so many of us feel these days about America and refuses to scrub it clean. He lets those feelings take up a great deal of emotional space. And though the ending (spoiler alert) is indeed oddly uplifting, it feels utterly earned. Perhaps because this sense of uplift resonates so well is because it is an admixture of hope and desolation – two things the great (no sarcasm intended) Aaron Sorkin has seldom felt comfortable sit together.