Pull up Facebook on your Macs, hold your poker cards close, and get ready to handle the truth, because today we’re going to be talking about an Aaron Sorkin movie.
I am currently a student at Columbia College Chicago, which is just off the loop in the city. Now I know being a student at a college downtown during a pandemic is basically like buying the 4k copy of a movie without a 4k television to watch it on, but the experience of being in that place at this time of “civil unrest” has given me a pause in my casual watching of this unsurprisingly loquacious film. Unlike writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s other works, which feel like they are art pieces for the ages, this film directly profits off of being a film of the now.
Surrounded by the young vocal “activists” at the college I “attend”, with their disorganized and often fruitlessly disrespectful dialogue about the current state of our country, my heart has hardened towards their sentiments in many cases. Whether I am on the side of their annoyance or not, their way of evoking change by name calling and harsh judgement on those whose ideals fall even slightly below their standards never feels effective to me.
Seeing Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen) gagged by police was effective to me. Watching a court claim to be respectful without giving this man a right to counsel was engaging. Hearing a lawyer having to ask, in a throwaway line no less, whether this black man can breathe imprinted on my mind. This is the power of cinema.
This movie is, in a sense, a protest. It may be as disorganized and fruitless as the rants of my college classmates, but it is a protest in cinematic form that asks, though it doesn’t answer, a very valid question.
When fighting a revolution, at what point do you stop respecting the authority against which you are fighting?
That is the heart of Chicago 7. In the film, Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) takes the side of the radical revolutionary who cares not whether the institution is respected or not, while Tom Hayden (Redmayne) plays the Clark Kent type who has a respect for the American Way. Over the course of the film Redmayne slowly and metaphorically undoes his tie, learning by the end that the cultural revolution that Hoffman represents is a profitable way to stop the corrupt authorities put in place. The reading of the names of dead American soldiers in Vietnam at the trial’s end is his version of Hoffman’s earlier mockery of the judge being a cop in a robe: a middle finger to the government that has required revolution of its people. The film doesn’t draw a clear line in the sand at which point one must turn to incivility, which I think has rubbed many critics the wrong way. Hayden even lets the air out of the tires of cops and points out their “contradictory instructions” in a very uncivil way, contrary to the rest of his characterization. The film is too loose about where its morals lie to take a hard stance; but then these seven (formerly eight) defendants have a grey history both morally and criminally. This lack of commitment would feel more earned if it felt like there were external consequences to the characters actions.
For example, when David Dellinger (Lynch) punches an officer in court out of frustration, we see his son from his POV looking on in disappointment at the violent display. The father who strongly stated at the beginning of the film that he would never resort to violence has now done just that. This is a decently effective set up without a payoff; we don’t see the child again until the end of the film, where he dutifully cheers his father and the other defendants on for standing in defiance. Sorkin doesn’t thoroughly explore both sides of the argument, but rather uses it to add a semblance of structure to these events.
As other reviewers have pointed out, Sorkin’s scripts can sometimes feels like flair without substance. At one point in the film, Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman quotes Matthew 10:35 in which Christ states “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” in order to make a point about taking quotes out of context. Hoffman goes on to say “it sure sound like he’s telling kids to kill their parents. Until you read Matthew 20:34 and 10:36.” However, if you read this passage only from 10:34 through 36, I can honestly say that the passage still sounds like Christ is telling kids to rise up violently. If you read the whole chapter of course, you realize that is not what Jesus is saying at all, but Sorkin didn’t say that in his script, probably because it doesn’t make for as punchy a line. This synecdochical example should remind us that Sorkin is taking fact and transforming it into stylized fiction, with his own flair and manipulation of facts in order to create a compelling story.
That is not to say the script is without merit though. My honest opinion is that others’ critique of the film’s Sorkinisms is born simply out of boredom with Sorkin as a writer. His critics feel he’s been on top for too long, and it’s time to start criticizing. The only thing they honestly give the writer credit for is being lucky enough to release this film at the right time, but otherwise he is too gimmicky and flourishing to be taken seriously. To this I disagree strongly. To say without those gimmicks and flourishes he is nothing is to say that without its pioneering camera techniques Citizen Kane is nothing. It is in these dialogue whirlwinds that Sorkin buries truth and opinion. It is a stylistic choice to engage the audience with its content; it isn’t some piece of selfish showmanship without purpose.
The acting in this piece is also phenomenal, and everyone shows up. While Redmayne and Cohen are the obvious standouts, I would like to spotlight a few actors that aren’t getting much love. The third act twist reveals Michael Keaton as former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and Keaton lends a strong presence to this star witness. He acts almost as a rockstar, which sells to me the first crack we see in the confidence of Judge Hoffman (Langella). Also worth noting is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced performance as the young prosecuting attorney. His profesional air is punctured with the curve of a lip or the turn of a shoulder towards humanity that pays off by the end up the film, if ever so slightly.
On the other side of the courtroom, I can definitely say I haven’t seen enough praise by critics for Jeremy Strong’s depiction of Jerry Rubin. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman has already been given a lot of attention, and this may be due to his comedic moments having large spots of dark sobered drama. But Jeremy Strong has a more subtle performance than that; the comedy is the drama for his character. When he catches an egg at the beginning of the film that has been hurled at him by a protestor, Strong’s performance is akin to the amusing Ted (of Excellent Adventure fame) but carries the gravity of his character’s experience in dealing with many demonstrations just like this. When, a few scenes later, he interrupts the judge in the courtroom over the dispute about Bobby Seale’s lawyer, the audience is attached to him, and understands that he knows what he’s talking about. His voice is powerful throughout the rest of the film in a cast comprised of powerful voices, and I applaud this much nuance in a character easily dismissible as comedic relief.
The film isn’t perfect by a long stretch, but its release date transforms it into something timely and beyond a need to watch. It’s an exhibit (not a painting) of corruption that runs in our country on a systematic level, even if it’s an imperfect one. If marches on the street, graffiti on our walls, and crying voices no longer work, perhaps the flickering lights of cinema can be a new way to protest. As Bobby Seale says in the film, “Martin’s dead, Malcom’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we’re gonna try something else.”
I used that quote out of context. Oops.