Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Aaron Sorkin’s second film as director is another legal drama. His directorial debut, Molly’s Game (2017), was more or less a biography of a young woman, but it also involved a type of courtroom battle. Before Sorkin sat in the director’s chair, he was principally known as a screenwriter and two of his most popular scripts were essentially legal dramas, that of A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010). As such, it seems as if legal dramas are Sorkin’s favorite genre. They’re also my favorite genre, so I’ve been inclined to like much of Sorkin’s works. I wasn’t a fan of The Social Network because I didn’t feel like Sorkin understood what the true effect of social media, particularly that of Facebook, truly was. It wasn’t necessarily due to his age, which is near 60. I didn’t feel Sorkin really understood who the men truly were that he was writing, which is fine, because his characters can be whoeever he chooses.
That’s not the case here. Maybe it’s because it’s been 50 years since this true-life story occurred. There has been so much that has been printed or published, as well as other film and TV that have been created that a more thorough or more detailed understanding of the men here is possible. Sorkin has a lot more material at his disposal in order to craft more thoughtful re-creations, not that thoughtful characters can’t be created out of whole-cloth, but if one is crafting a script based on a real-life person, it would perhaps be better to have as much material as possible.
At first, the prospects of telling this story seems a little daunting because despite its title, there are more than seven characters for Sorkin to juggle. There were in fact eight men on trial. There are also the two lawyers representing them, as well as the prosecutor and judge. There are even some ancillary characters who are injected in order to fill out the world. That’s over a dozen people that Sorkin has to juggle and make feel vital and necessary to telling this story. From my estimation, Sorkin absolutely accomplishes that.
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl and The Theory of Everything) stars as Tom Hayden, one of the men on trial for the alleged crime of starting a riot, involving police. Tom was the leader of one of the four groups or political organizations that were going to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Tom’s group was called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a left-wing organization, mainly pushing anti-war policies, specifically protesting the Vietnam War, but, of all the leaders of the left-leaning groups, he’s probably the youngest and least radical. He’s very clean-cut, very pragmatic. He wasn’t a hippie or part of the counter-culture.
Sacha Baron Cohen (Les Misérables and Borat) co-stars as Abbie Hoffman, another of the men on trial for the riot in the wake of the 1968 DNC event. Unlike Tom, Abbie was indeed a hippie. He was indeed a member of the counter-culture and he was indeed more leftist than Tom, a position that causes him to butt heads with Tom during the protests and certainly during the trial. Abbie was in fact the leader of a group called the Youth International Party, or Yippie, an obvious play on the word “hippie.” Abbie is very much an embodiment of the hippie movement. Yet, he’s very smart and provides a lot of the comic relief.
Watching Tom and Abbie clash as both agree on where they want to go but disagree on how exactly to get there. Abbie is more revolutionary and is more about pushing boundaries. Tom is more about staying within certain bounds and limits, working within the system. Tom believes he can change things from the inside out, whereas Abbie and his followers want to blow it all up. Given that this is not new material, Sorkin has to distinguish this film somehow. This exact trial has been explored numerous times. Brett Morgen’s documentary Chicago 10 (2008) distinguished itself by being animated. Sorkin distinguishes through the structure and those aforementioned clashes between Tom and Abbie in the moments outside of the trial.
As such, Sorkin is able to use this film to comment on the current times. Yes, these events took place 50 years ago, but, unfortunately, there is still a lot that is relevant to today. The division seen here between Tom and Abbie as two left-wing groups is comparable or relevant to the division between those in the Democratic Party during the 2020 primaries. The main issue historically was the Vietnam War. When Morgen’s film was released, there was the comparable Iraq War to which could be pointed. In 2020, foreign policy hasn’t been as large an issue. However, during the 1968 protests, racism and race relations were also large issues and in 2020, that is something to which can be pointed as a viable link.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen and Aquaman) plays Bobby Seale, the most troubled of all the men on trial. He sits at the defense table with the other seven men on trial, but technically he’s the only one without a lawyer. He’s also the only black person at the table. It’s not known how Bobby would have been treated during the trial if his lawyer had been there or if the lawyers for the other defendants would have represented him. Unfortunately, Bobby was isolated in more ways than one, and one would think that the prosecutor would be his chief antagonist. Yet, that’s not the case. The racism comes from a place a bit higher up.
Frank Langella (Robot & Frank and Frost/Nixon) also co-stars as Julius Hoffman, the judge overseeing the trial who is very quick to point out that he is of no relation to Abbie Hoffman. He’s also not subtle about his despising of Bobby, most likely on racial terms. He also seems to be vehemently against the organization Bobby leads, that of the Black Panther Party. It’s an organization that’s as regarded back then as the Black Lives Matter movement is today. Julius’ villainy might seem a bit over the top, but, given that most, if not all his lines are pulled from the actual court transcripts, it becomes about how Sorkin balances it.
Sorkin gives voice to Bobby Seale’s friend, Fred Hampton, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce and Waves). Even though the title includes the “Chicago 7,” there were actually 8 men on trial, at least initially. Bobby isn’t allowed to speak much, but we feel his frustration and struggle that he has as a result of the racism acting upon him, which is at times subtle or other times blatant. Ultimately, the text of this film and the actual trial was about the Vietnam War and the lives lost in that conflict, but the comparison to military conflicts today isn’t as present. If one wants to make racism one of the major takeaways, then one could extrapolate a concluding moment as equivalent to a recent Black Lives Matter refrain of saying the name of the person who was lost. For Breonna Taylor, a recent victim noted in the Black Lives Matter movement, the refrain on social media of #SayHerName was a campaign that took off. By the end, Sorkin does something similar where the climax is saying a person’s name.
Like A Few Good Men, the film does culminate in a particular witness taking the stand in the trial. In A Few Good Men, that witness was played by Jack Nicholson who faced off against Tom Cruise. It’s one of the most iconic confrontations, not only in any legal drama but in all of cinematic history. For Sorkin, it would be difficult even for him to top that confrontation. However, it seems as though he does try to approximate it somewhat when Cohen’s character of Abbie Hoffman takes the stand and then has to face off with the young prosecutor, Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Abbie versus Richard isn’t as explosive, but it’s entertaining enough and certainly not the crown jewel of this film as it was in A Few Good Men.
Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for his role in that 1992 classic. If anyone walks away with an Oscar nomination here, it might be Mark Rylance (Dunkirk and Bridge of Spies) who plays William Kunstler, the lawyer for the seven men. He has the more engaging role here. I certainly wouldn’t object if he got the nomination and would likely root for him to win. Of course, I would also root for Sorkin to get a nomination for writing as the script is snappy and superb.
Rated R for language, violence, bloody images and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.
Available on Netflix.