by Anosh Aibara |
The Trial of The Chicago Seven is a gripping courtroom ensemble with some of the greatest performances of the year. Aaron Sorkin is one of the greatest contemporary screenwriters in the industry, he has written for many great filmmakers, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Rob Reiner and even Mike Nichols. Sorkin’s work dabbles with a huge variety of subjects and here, in his second directorial feature, he explores the sixties counterculture movement in America, in the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
The movie begins without wasting any time and drops us right into the middle of the soaring sixties. With fast cutting and interspersed archival footage, we meet the characters and the situation they are in. They are going to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois to protest the on-going Vietnam War. Though their intentions are one, they differ in their approaches. Cut to five months later, and in the Attorney General’s office, two attorneys are summoned to be federal prosecutors to charge these seven protestors with conspiracy and inciting to riot. They are Thomas Foran (J.C Mackenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt). The newly appointed Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman) wants to prosecute these seven protestors, not only as revenge on the on-going anti-war movement but also on his predecessor Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) (because he only resigned an hour before Mitchell was appointed). The young and ambitious Schultz does not particularly agree with the A.G. here, but reluctantly takes on the case.
Enter the antagonist in the drama, the utterly annoying, biased, racist, incompetent judge, Julius Hoffman, played brilliantly by Frank Langella. The Judge proves to be more of an opposition to our heroes than the prosecution itself, he does everything in his power to muzzle the voices of the defence. This escalates to each defendant along with their counsel being charged with contempt of court at some point during the proceedings, along with preventing the defendant from representing himself because his attorney is ill, and when that is not enough, he even orders him to be bound and gagged, until finally a mistrial is declared.
In the end, the judge gets the verdict he wanted. Five of the seven are found guilty of inciting to riot, which is later dismissed in an appeals court. We learn this through titles superimposed in the final frames of the picture, as the iconic music rises and the camera pulls back to a wide shot of the courtroom and in the background Tom Hayden reciting the names of all those killed in the war since the trial began.
This is an imperfect picture. It is safe to say that Sorkin’s literature has been done an injustice by his own hands, behind the camera. There are a lot of bad directorial decisions, and one does not have to look hard to conclude that these ideas looked good on paper. Here the problem is not Sorkin the writer, but Sorkin the director. In this case, it seems that the screenplay and the final picture contrast even when both are crafted by the same person.
The hand of a confident filmmaker is felt between the images. A lot of detail goes into the making of a movie, and a majority of it goes unnoticed but it still matters. The details accumulate in an unexpected way to contribute to the emotional effect of the film. This is done through subtext and when done correctly, it’s magic. The picture speaks. For instance, take the insane amount of detail in Hot Fuzz, or the impeccably poignant Jules et Jim. A lot of comparisons can be made between Jules et Jim and Chicago 7. Both begin with fast montages giving the background of characters, they both follow friends as they grow and develop, both have war backdrops and both deviate from their source material for their endings.
So, why does Truffaut’s ending work and Sorkin’s doesn’t? For one, Sorkin has unexpectedly fallen into the trap of cliché and sentimentality. His sin is not the distortion of facts, but a bad execution of emotion. It’s very easy to overdo a scene in the pursuit of emotion, pushing too hard can result in the actions and dialogue feeling contrived and empty leaving the audience with a flat scene that sticks out.
With his finale, Sorkin appears to be forcing a particular emotion onto the viewer rather than present the situation and let the viewer experience and digest it themselves. For instance, the music was too dramatic in the scene, which instantly puts audiences off and gives a phoney feeling. At this point, it does not matter if the director intended good. Truffaut’s ending is tragic and poignant, for it depicts what it is and does not linger more than required. There is no commentary in his camera work.
Another issue here is development. The rivalry between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman seems half-baked which also undermines the effectiveness of the brilliant confrontation between the two in the third act. Sorkin’s structure comes under question here. Surely he is no Robert Altman, but he is no flyweight either. He does not bother with balancing all character stories but instead aims at making a statement on the politics of the time, hence commenting on the politics prevalent today. But that could’ve been better achieved if he had been honest to the real events that were gruesome enough.
Consider the case of Bobby Seale – in the movie he is ignored, silenced, humiliated, until finally bound and gagged and brought to the courtroom, when finally Schultz moves for a mistrial and he is dropped from the trial. This was done and gotten over within ten minutes. Does it work? Of course, it does, especially when it is executed properly. But, does it work twice? Especially when people come out and learn that the real torture of Bobby Seale was more gruesome. His torture lasted three whole days before the plea from Weinglass came. Here, Sorkin has sacrificed facts, but the real sin here was that it served no purpose. Further, the picture does very little to show the passage of time. This was a tiring trial with an extremely annoying judge which lasted a whopping six months. Yet, the characters feel as fresh and sharp and articulate as they were when the movie began.
Now the problematic finale – one would never expect Aaron Sorkin to have such a sentimental ending to his picture, especially when it feels so out of place. It overshadows the brilliant final confrontation of Abbie and Tom and later Abbie’s testimony on the stand.
All accounts are settled, peace has been made, so that closing scene did not serve any real purpose. One is tempted to directly compare this ending with the ending of JFK, another picture accused of not being historically accurate. JFK did not rely on any insane theatrics to evoke emotion in its finale. In fact, it has a simple ending, where the hero loses and calmly walks down the corridors of the court building with his wife. There is more truth in that.
Nevertheless, the movie is a masterclass for acting. There are a lot of tense scenes where peak drama is achieved – great writing meets great acting. A brief scene with Ramsey Clark on the stand offers the most brilliant moment in the picture. This is owed not only to the brilliant performance of Michael Keaton and Frank Langella but to the sheer genius of Mark Rylance in portraying the helpless calling out in a broken justice system. Every single character is perfectly cast and masterfully performed. Also, there are many gripping scenes with flashbacks of protests and the violence is perfectly orchestrated with tight editing and sharp dialogue.
For all aspiring screenwriters, Sorkin is a writer to aspire to. He is up there with David Mamet, Woody Allen, William Goldman, Robert Towne, Ben Hecht and the Coen Brothers. His latest is NOT a disappointment - far from it. It’s just that he has a lot to learn from it, just as we do.
A major lesson to learn from this movie is to refrain from deviating from the source material. Do it only if it is absolutely necessary – if the story does not work in any other way, and emotion is strengthened by sacrificing the facts because the people are inherently suckers for truth.
Stay away from the sworn enemies of emotion: cliché and sentimentality, instead befriend authenticity and subtlety. Rather than forcing a specific emotion on the viewer, portray the incident or scene for what it is and let the audience experience and digest it for themselves. Do not underestimate the audience.
Finally, do not lean hard on ground rules and screenwriting 101 – for after a while the patterns are sensed and the picture becomes pretentious. Cinema is a playground; there are no limitations to what it can portray. It has the ability to transcend all barriers and achieve what no other art form can achieve.
Anosh Aibara is a freelance writer from Mumbai, India, currently an English undergraduate. As a voracious reader and a passionate cinephile, he loves to pick and rip apart metaphors and write movie reviews.