You’d think that a bunch of Yippies nominating a 145-pound pig, cheekily dubbed “Pigasus,” for president would need showcasing, but Aaron Sorkin is of a different mind. The venerable writer/director’s criminally pigless picture, The Trial of the Chicago 7, focuses instead on the eponymous group’s protracted trial following its heavy involvement in anti-war protests in ’60s Chicago.
Fiery bellies and a gravitational pull toward positive change drove these men to become ardent faces of a festering distaste for the United States’ wartime priorities. And Sorkin’s searing film does a decent job driving that earnestness home. It may skimp on necessary emotional beats and become more innocuous than it intends, but there’s an undeniable relevance to Sorkin’s latest effort that ultimately makes it a worthy expenditure of cognitive juice.
As one of its respective era’s most critical moments, the 1968 Democratic Convention cranked patriotic critique up to a fierce boil. At the center of the protests stood (in)dignitaries Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Bobby Seale, and Lee Weiner. Originally a group of eight, the “Chicago 7” became so when Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale earned himself a separate trial.
For context: The 1968 Democratic Convention brought together people dissatisfied with the United States’ response to the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated within three months of each other (April 4 and June 6, respectively) and the U.S. government, particularly the Democratic Party, had fallen into complete disarray. A group of Americans, later dubbed “the Chicago 7,” found themselves on trial following evidence suggesting they incited riots during the concurrent anti-war protests. Turns out that despite its ostensibly violent execution, their message was unquestionably well-intentioned. Still, the system gnashed its teeth and struggled against its institutional tethers, forced to follow due process but determined to sidestep and subvert its own rules. Not surprising in the least, honestly.
Sacha Baron Cohen, channeling the up-and-at-’em spirit of a bonafide revolutionary, quickly establishes himself as the picture’s brightest star. His performance here is somewhat incongruous, especially given the recent news that Borat will be forcing his way back into our lives in a wholly unnecessary sequel. But Sorkin has Cohen play to his strengths. He brings brazen defiance to a courtroom stuffy with tension. He spits jokes in the unamused mug of his personal ruin. Cohen is every bit the riled-up dissident that courts dread, and he revels in it. Redmayne’s turn as the quietly passionate Tom Hayden, coupled with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s convincing Richard Schultz, also proves effective and acts as a foil to Cohen’s fearlessly irreverent showman.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 works because it leans hard into its aspirations as a compelling legal drama, even if its ever-ballooning sense of self-importance dilutes some of its finer elements. Sorkin uses this particular case to illuminate injustice and say something meaningful about the persistence and prevalence of systemic dysfunction. As earnest and as thorough as it is, it doesn’t appreciate its own weight nearly long enough for viewers to experience the film as much more than a dry exploration of a decades-old protest. Moments of tenderness come and go to make way for breakthroughs and epiphanies, and the main players end up feeling less like people and more like pieces played in a dull chess game. Early on in the film, we see David Dellinger, one of the more boisterous members of the 7, say goodbye to his wife and son. Later, as officers pin a struggling Dellinger to a courtroom bench, we catch a glimpse of his family’s alarm and grief, but neither sentiment hits.
As impressively acted and as sharply written as it is, Sorkin’s take on this seismic trial offers little more than a textbook’s account of the event would. Sorkin’s hope seems to be that reflecting on the “Chicago 7” will help viewers process what’s happening now, but he addresses it with a stiffness that doesn’t at all become the harrowing nature of the incident he’s chronicling.