Aaron Sorkin Puts America on Trial

By | October 18, 2020

No rushing. Such is the rule that governs most courtroom dramas. We are expected to work through a heavy load of drama—crimes, misdemeanors, and character buildups—until we reach the doors of the courtroom. Almost an hour passes, in “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), before the trial of the accused gets going, and even that is a false start. In “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), the wait is longer still. Not until halfway through the film do we see folks hasten toward the courthouse, in anticipation of “the most excitin’ thing that’s ever happened in this town,” as one of the children calls it.

Aaron Sorkin has other ideas. He is a man in a hurry. It’s true that, almost thirty years ago, in his script for “A Few Good Men” (1992), he stuck to the usual blueprint; with an hour gone, Tom Cruise declared, “We’re going to get creamed,” whereupon the legal creaming began. There, however, the director was Rob Reiner, and the plot had to be carefully tailored and laid out in advance, like a uniform. Now, in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a new film that Sorkin both wrote and directed, there’s no messing around. Within twenty minutes, the court is in session. Be seated. Let the Sorkinizing commence.

The title gives you the gist. It’s September, 1969, and the seven are as follows: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). The charge of conspiracy to cross state lines with the intent to riot relates to the tumultuous events at the Democratic National Convention, the year before. The defense is led by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). The prosecuting attorney is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a straight arrow who isn’t quite convinced by his target; at his side is Thomas Foran (J. C. MacKenzie). The judge is Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who is not—repeat not—related to Abbie.

The film is a distillation, as it has to be. The transcript of the original trial ran to twenty-two thousand pages. In the book “Conspiracy in the Streets,” from 2006, that vast haul of words was whittled down to a mere three hundred pages, and the editor, Jon Wiener, remarked on how much had been omitted; the distinct tone of the court proceedings, he said, is “left for the reader to imagine.” What Sorkin does is to answer that imaginative challenge. He fills us in not simply on the celebrated japes (Abbie Hoffman and Rubin dressing in black robes, for example, to match and mock the judge) but on the prevailing air of derision and disbelief. There is an exchange between Judge Hoffman and Dellinger, whose name has been mispronounced, which comes straight out of the trial scene—“Nathaniel Daniel or Daniel Nathaniel?”—in “The Pickwick Papers.” There is the maddened logic whereby testimony of the gravest import, offered by a former Attorney General of the United States, is ruled inadmissible. And there is the gradual realization that the judge, like the Queen of Hearts, is losing control. He covers his panic with citations for contempt of court: a hundred and seventy-five in all, reportedly, dished out to lawyers and defendants alike. Off with their heads!

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The high-fevered chaos of August, 1968, infected both the throng inside the Convention and the streets outside, where tens of thousands of people gathered to protest the war in Vietnam—a gathering that the forces of law and order, under the apoplectic aegis of Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, did their utmost to block and to break up. (An added irony: in 1959, Daley had sought to ban screenings of “Anatomy of a Murder” in the city.) If you want to take the temperature of that summer, before you watch the new film, read Norman Mailer’s “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” which is unsurpassed in its record of outrage, belligerence, and fear. No one but Mailer would have the gall to open his description of Chicago with a tribute to its stockyards, where he sniffs a hot-blooded stench that is then allowed to waft through the succeeding pages.

If the pandemonium in Chicago was the stuff of headlines, as was the ensuing trial, Sorkin must know that, for many younger viewers, the late sixties count as ancient history. Never one to miss a connection, however, he will also be aware that those same viewers, primed by the convulsions and the clamors for justice that have arisen in 2020, will be all too alert to any parallels with tremors of the past. So it is that, once the film has embarked upon the scenes in court, we cut back, repeatedly, to the unrest of 1968—to the fog of tear gas, the storm of truncheon blows, and the sudden shattering, as protesters are hustled and bunched against the plate-glass windows of the Haymarket Tavern, at the Hilton Hotel. (Inside the inn, the talk is small, and cocktails are being sipped.) We are also treated to the sight of Allen Ginsberg attempting to lead a procession with a pacifying chant of “Om.” That really helps.

To describe “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as an action flick would be going too far. Anyone hoping for Dwayne Johnson to show up as Hubert Humphrey, securing his nomination as the Democratic candidate with a thump of his mighty fists, will be disappointed. And yet, for Sorkin, talk is action; his creatures come verbally armed to the hilt, barely pausing to reload. Think of his TV shows, like “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” or the films that he wrote, like “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) and “The Social Network” (2010), and ask yourself: Does anybody, in Sorkin’s world, ever sit back, switch off, and shut up? His specialty is not just rat-a-tat dialogue but a battle of ideas, in which both the rat and the tat are equipped with a point of principle. More often than not, the fight occurs within a single camp. Thus, away from the courtroom, Tom Hayden takes the line that only by mastering the dull grind of electoral politics can one acquire the power to enact substantial change. Anything else is mere show. Opposing him is Abbie Hoffman, who favors a cultural revolution. Protest is theatre, he would argue, shaping and shifting the minds of its audience in ways that no policy-wrangling can rival. The show goes on. Screw the grind.

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“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is coruscating in its discourse, and graced by a formidable squadron of actors, and yet, for all that, it verges on the dogged. It lacks the biting toughness of “The Social Network,” Sorkin’s finest hour, in which his liberal urgings had to contend with the bleaker and less hopeful outlook of the director, David Fincher. Here, by contrast, there’s scarcely any moral letup, and the musical score, by Daniel Pemberton, leaves us precious little room for maneuver; it’s as though we were being instructed what to feel. (The same problem nagged at “The West Wing,” not least in the laughable theme that soared and drummed above the opening credits.) That is why, when we are granted a brief patch of calm, it comes as a relief. Abbie Hoffman’s appearance on the stand, for example, is a welcome surprise. Throughout the trial, he’s been the class clown, but now, under oath, he cools it, and proves to be a persuasive witness—even quoting from Abraham Lincoln and Holy Scripture in support of his radical cause, which is not what we foresaw. The fact that he’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen, an actor whose comic personae so frequently operate at full tilt, lends further weight to this weirdly ruminative scene. As Abbie says, “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.”

Then we have Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party. He, too, is one of the accused, raising the seven to eight, but the charge against him is patently absurd. He was only fleetingly in Chicago at the time of the demonstrations; he did not hook up with the other defendants, thus rendering any notion of conspiracy null and void; and he has no lawyer to defend him. All of which riles Judge Hoffman, who so objects to Seale’s legitimate complaints that he orders him to be bound and gagged. And there he sits, in public view. You might find it difficult to believe that this monstrosity took place, in open court, but it did—and the image of such blatant racial humiliation may be the most abiding legacy of the trial, more so than the antiwar pronouncements of Hayden, Dellinger, and the rest of the gang. People are seldom lost for words, in any tale told by Aaron Sorkin, but this particular loss—words torn away from a citizen, by the state, in the name of the law—is a crime.

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Is it a movie? Is it a show? Is it an experimental art happening, with a singalong tacked on? “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” directed by Spike Lee, is all of these, and more. It was filmed, with an audience, at the Hudson Theatre, where Byrne’s musical pick-me-up ran from October, 2019, to February of this year. For anyone who feels pained and parched by the lack of live entertainment in the past few months, the film could be an oasis.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” takes the concert-film genre to new levels of uplift.Photograph by David Lee / HBO

There are a dozen people onstage, Byrne included, and they all do everything. They all sing, they all dance, and they all play at least one instrument. And they all stroll freely around the set, since every connection is wireless. One guy has a keyboard strapped to him by a sort of harness; as he wanders to and fro, he brings to mind a cigarette seller of the old school, purveying her wares in a night club. The twelve performers are clad in identical suits of silver-gray; as looks go, it may sound a little Brechtian and grim, and yet it is their troubadour-like liberty, not their regimentation, that strikes the eye. I guess it helps that none of them wears shoes. Picture the world’s most melodic beach bums, and you’re pretty much there.

For Byrne devotees and fans of Talking Heads, there is plenty on show. “How did I get here?”, the crowd cries out, in loyal unison, at the appropriate moment during “Once in a Lifetime.” But Lee, who keeps his cameras moving with a busy elegance, somehow fends off any threat of the cramped and the exclusive—the standard risks of a concert film. Now and then, Byrne puts the songs on hold and issues a few short political commands; as the movie’s title suggests, though, these are so unexceptionable (everyone should register to vote!), and so whimsically benign, that only the most churlish of viewers will dissent. And so we are left with a paradox: the sense of uplift for which Sorkin strives, so tenaciously, in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” is reached by Byrne, Lee, and their heavenly host of musicians with every appearance of ease. Their efforts are at once tightly organized and suavely disguised, and what I want to know is: Will this movie transform the template of the rock concert, shaming other artists into broadening their horizons and expanding their acts? At the Rolling Stones’ next gig, to celebrate the end of lockdown, will Keith and Ronnie skip around and do a little dance? Don’t hold your breath.

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