Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, creator of TV’s The West Wing and the birth-of-Facebook movie The Social Network, can give you sizzling dialogue and get you almost delirious with excitement about contemporary ideas. But he can also become fantastically ponderous, bloated with finger-waggingly self-important liberal patriotism. Sadly, that is the tone with this exasperatingly dull, dramatically inert and faintly misjudged re-creation of the “Chicago Seven” trial in the US, which Sorkin has written and directed.
In 1968, the incoming Nixon administration greenlit the punitive prosecution of seven supposed ringleaders of a violent anti-war protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In fact, they were originally the “Chicago Eight”, but charges were finally dismissed against the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was notoriously bound and gagged in the courtroom to keep him silent. Somehow, this film manages to keep Seale in a peripheral role, concentrating far more on how upset the verbose white liberals are at his treatment.
After a long and earnest news-footage montage setting out the background, we get a long and earnest trial; finally the key arrests themselves are dramatised in flashback. Sacha Baron Cohen is wittily cast as the anarchist counterculture leader Abbie Hoffman, whose standup comedy routine is occasionally shown as a narrative device; Jeremy Strong is Hoffman’s bearded and laidback comrade Jerry Rubin; Eddie Redmayne is civil rights activist Tom Hayden; John Carroll Lynch is the pacifist David Dellinger; Daniel Flaherty is fellow protester John Froines; Alex Sharp is Rennie Davis and Noah Robbins is Lee Weiner. Mark Rylance has little to work with in the role of civil rights lawyer William Kunstler but Frank Langella is scene-stealingly grumpy as the reactionary and cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale.
Most heart-sinking is the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in besuited nice-guy mode as junior prosecutor Richard Schultz, who is, inevitably, imagined as the mandatory West Wing-Sorkin liberal establishment figure with real doubts about what he is doing and is, in spirit, almost on the defendants’ side. (In fact, the contemporary reports describe the real him as the government’s pitbull whose lips “would twist into a snarl and he would leap toward the lectern denouncing the defendants or their attorneys for some unspeakable new crime.”)
Sorkin has a few zingers here: it’s entertaining when one of the Seven, wondering why he has been prosecuted, concludes drolly that these are the “Academy Awards of protest” and it’s an honour just to be nominated. Strong has a nice moment when someone throws an egg at Rubin from the crowd as he walks into the courtroom and with weirdly unexpected quick reflexes he catches it – and then doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
But again and again, scenes and lines land with a solemn clunk. Minor and major figures, played by minor and major stars, show up with their characters’ names grandly flashed up on screen and the drama simply hasn’t earned their presumed aura of glamorous historical importance. And when something really important and dramatic happens – namely, the extraordinarily spiteful gagging of Bobby Seale – the padding of all this courtroom waffle and progressive concern muffles the shock. “Can you breathe?” someone asks Seale from the public gallery. It’s a question intended to resonate with the BLM age, but this can only provoke the issue of whether the whole film should not really have been centrally about Seale: the Chicago One.
Later, the moderate Tom Hayden has a very self-conscious debate with the more radical Hoffman about his irresponsible methods, and says angrily that he’s concerned that when people in future think about protest: “They’re gonna think of you!” Really? Hoffman has rather sunk into oblivion in pop culture: not so the Black Panthers, who are not really considered in this discussion.
And so Day 1 and Day 23 and Day 156 of courtroom drama roll portentously across the screen, with the film congratulating itself for being on the right side of history and repeatedly aiming its shotgun at the fish in the barrel with such verve. What a trial it is.
• This article was amended on 2 October 2020 to correct Jerry Hayden to Tom Hayden in the penultimate paragraph.