Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Aaron Sorkin serves up an overly polite historical courtroom drama that misses the mark.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of those ‘quality’ films where everyone involved clearly feels they are making something important and, in way, they are. The story is one of government abuse / revenge (it’s a show trial) and an attempt to silence dissent. On the other hand, all it can muster in terms of a political statement, in it’s polite seriousness, is ‘I wish these ruffians weren’t in charge of our fine institutions’.

Sound familiar?

Coming from Sorkin, this is to be expected. As the writer of The West Wing, a fun bit of wish fulfilment TV, his worldview is perhaps the embodiment of current centrist thinking. That series, and this film, tell us that everything is fine until individual bad actors (or less intelligent people) come along and that ideals are second to polite process. Here he excoriates Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman for not being more like Tom Hayden and synthesis can only be achieved by the former becoming more like the latter. He even goes out of his way to make prosecutor Richard Schultz a conflicted individual when there is no evidence for this.

But the key here is Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and the 8th member of the 7. Sorkin seems blind to the fact that for Bobby Seale, for black Americans, this is what every trial would feel like, long before and long after Nixon. The institutions are part of the problem, they can’t not be. Due to his respectful and sensible centrism, Sorkin has created a film that is all gesture and no substance. A film that, like the teacher all of Sorkin’s heroes inevitably become, isn’t angry but is just disappointed in the naughty children. Apparently there is a war on.

Technically, the film itself is rather plodding. The performances are all fine but only Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale is given any room for actual passion.

If you want to watch a great film about the Chicago 7, watch Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park. If you want a comfort blanket, I guess Sorkin is your man.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently playing at The Mallard Cinema and will be available on Netflix from 16 October.

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