As a screenwriter, I’m often asked who my favorite writer is, and I always have only one answer—Aaron Sorkin.
Famous for his intelligent storytelling, his cutting, razor-sharp wit, and the rhythm and cadence of his writing style, his screenplays have the distinct, educated, eloquent Sorkin Sense, which just means he is able to marry his passion for a specific material, his very clear crafting of character and his memorable monologues into one epic, often awards-worthy masterpiece.
I mean, who can forget Jack Nicholson’s iconic courtroom confrontation scene in 1992’s A Few Good Men? Opposite Tom Cruise, Nicholson earned an Academy Award nomination even if it was Cruise’s movie. “You can’t handle the truth!” is perhaps the most iconic of all the lines he’s ever written. And then, there is my most favorite scene ever written for the screen—the opening breakup scene of 2010’s The Social Network. Based on the life of Mark Zuckerberg, the genesis of Social Media Giant Facebook, that opening scene set the motivation for the entire movie. It earned lead star Jesse Eisenberg his first nomination for a Best Actor Oscar and finally gave Sorkin his well-deserved first Academy Award win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course, there’s also 2011’s Moneyball, which gave Brad Pitt his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and 2015’s Steve Jobs, which also earned lead actor Michael Fassbender his second Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Clearly, he is a master at writing male characters.
His new film The Trial of the Chicago 7is also very male-centric, revolving around not just 7 but more than a dozen male characters based on historical people and upon true events following seven anti-Vietnam war protesters federally charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In writing (and directing) this piece, Sorkin does a juggling act with almost lyrical balance.
Originally intended for theatrical release, distribution rights were sold to Netflix following the global COVID-19 pandemic. Also originally intended to be a Steven Spielberg helmed film, Sorkin takes over in his second directorial effort of the period film starring a plethora of both esteemed character actors and Hollywood heavy hitters led by Academy Award Winner Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella and Michael Keaton.
Redmayne plays Tom Hayden, leader of President of the Students for a Democratic Society and one of the 7 defendants, his polar opposite activist counterpart, Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, also his fellow defendant, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner and Daniel Flaherty as John Froines rounding up the Chicago 7.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale, National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, the eighth defendant, Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, defense counsel of the Chicago 7, Gordon-Levitt as Richard Shultz, the young and impressionable Federal Prosecutor, Langella as the residing and seemingly biased Judge, Julius Hoffman and Keaton as the former Attorney General of the United States and surprise witness for the defense, Ramsey Clark.
The story begins in the transition of power from the Johnson to the Nixon administration with newly sworn-in Attorney General John Mitchell, played by John Doman, hiring federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt), the best at the District Attorney’s office, to deliver a guilty verdict on the Chicago 7 as payback for previous Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s (Keaton) refusal to resign his post to Mitchell earlier—sounds familiar? Two men, driven by ego to hold one position of power. One for as long as he can, the other, even before his time has come.
It’s always absolutely wrong when a public official’s personal grudge becomes the motivation for his actions and decisions, right? Right.
The real and underlying reason for the command of the guilty verdict of the Chicago 7 being, to shift the blame of the bloody 1968 Chicago riots from the police (Chicago is a police state) to the protesters and make examples out of them to discourage their followers from dissenting.
The trial starts shortly, and the character showcase begins. Tom Hayden (Redmayne) is portrayed as an idealistic preppy revolutionary young White man while Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) is pictured as an eccentric, hippie stand-up comedian with a mission. He gives the courtroom scenes lightness and relief with his wisecrack verbal antics. His irreverent humor is the comedy in an otherwise very weighted exchange in legal vernacular. The Chicago 7 are portrayed in a very sympathetic way—as agents of change against the eagerness and willingness of the United States to engage in war to show strength and power. The Defense Counsel of all 7, William Kuntsler (Rylance) is pictured as a long-haired, washed-up, pot-smoking but generally good-hearted lawyer that is smart enough to know that he is defending a case that has been decided on even before the trial began. Even federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) is pictured to be good, often balancing the principle behind the law and the correctness of the law to please the newly appointed Attorney General that gave him the biggest case of his career.
All of this “goodness” is set as a base for the evil that must transpire and that has been carefully orchestrated to convict the Chicago 7. An evil led by a very strong figurehead appointed by the Executive, and an even more evil symbol of the Judiciary—the conniving and incompetent Judge Hoffman played so infuriatingly effectively by Frank Langella. He antagonizes the defendants and their counsel, threatens them, holds them in contempt, tampers with the jury, and then sequesters them, then later disallows testimony that would essentially deliver an innocent verdict for the Chicago 7. There is no limit to the evil that this Judge can do. And there lies the irony in that.
Another important character in the story is Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen), a fellow defendant to the Chicago 7 and the only black man in trial. He is falsely accused of murder in another state. Therefore, the only one kept in custody throughout the duration of the trial while all other 7 white defendants are free on bail, billeted together awaiting the verdict. He is pictured to be a brave and dignified towering man held straight by his principles and fueled by the many injustices directed towards him and his people. Sound relevant?
So you have a restless, simmering people resisting the government, ripe for a revolution led by many different groups from student protest leaders to peace-loving radical activists, a Black movement, all victimized by police brutality, arrested because of the letter of a new law, passed to keep the administration in control and in power in a time of crisis.
Again, sound familiar?
As the trial drags on (for months on end), the human drama unfolds as each character is given a moment to shine, speak their truth, and fight for their beliefs. But, it is the interaction and dynamic of the defendants with the prosecutor and with the judge, and between themselves and their counsel that are the moments to look forward to.
It takes precision, accuracy, and a certain amount of obsessive-compulsiveness to weave all these in a very tight and highly-charged narrative, and Sorkin is able to do it even as he jumps back and forth from different timelines as storylines merge into one seamless rise to action. The saving grace comes at the 11th hour in the person of Ramsey Clark (Keaton), a story highlight, but it is a redemption only to be thwarted again. The pace steadily increases and swells into a powerful confrontation between Tom Hayden (Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Cohen), the two sides of the good that fight for the same ideal but come from very polar opposite means and manifestations. This is where the characters are fully unmasked, and ultimately, their fates are sealed.
From there is a masterful coordination of verbal calisthenics and a gripping revelation and turn of events that led me to cry very thick and continuing tears. In the end, I was so moved.
It’s very hard not to make connections from history to our present-day after watching this 2-hour acting, writing, and directorial showcase. It is powerful in every sense—from the prolonged silences to the deafening applause. I’m surprised it isn’t even in the Top 10 most watched in the Philippines when it is a genius’ very clear and strong and relevant message for now, as we all go through a generational cycle, incredible world events, and history repeating itself.
This is also very much our story too.
As you watch this film, you are awakened and become very aware of the similarities and parallelisms to our world today, where protests have become the voice of the pandemic. That even with a deadly virus covering the Earth, people continue to go out to the streets, risk their lives and raise their voices.
We’ve seen it in Hong Kong as they protested the Security Law. We saw it here, in the Philippines, when we protested the Anti-Terrorism Bill. We saw it in the Black Lives Movement all across America and Europe. And we are seeing it now in Thailand as they protest for democracy, in Chile as they are protesting changes to their constitution, and in Nigeria, as protesters suffer against police brutality over widespread claims of kidnapping, harassment, and extortion by a police unit known as SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad).
Makes you think that all of this brewing resistance is the force that is going to shift the world from its axis and change many societies and countries throughout the globe. And it all starts with a few good men (and women), Sorkin pun intended.
History has given us lessons. And if there’s one thing it has taught us, it’s that the ones that go out and elevate their voices are the ones that really change the world.
Like the chant repeated throughout the movie kept getting louder and louder, “The World is Watching.”
Maybe when the world watches this movie, it will know that true justice will always, eventually side with the greater good, the good of the people – that throughout our history, the fight for the rights of our fellow man and woman is what brings us to our greatest revolutions. Sacha Baron Cohen’s character was asked in the movie, “What is the cost of all this to you?”. His answer was “my life.” Perhaps everything that moves us to go out to the streets to fight for change is for life itself. And that is the importance of The Trial of the Chicago 7.
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