Monday 19 October 2020

Voir dire: "The Trial of the Chicago 7"

Aaron Sorkin's second film as writer-director, The Trial of the Chicago 7, unfolds as an expansive, two-hour bottle episode. The bulk of its activity plays out inside the Illinois County Courthouse of 1969, where a ragbag of left-leaning defendants - encompassing preppy students Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), married, middle-aged head of an anti-Vietnam War protest group David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), revolutionary pranksters Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), activists John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), plus Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) - were brought up on an obscure charge in connection with the violence that broke out during the previous year's Democratic National Convention in Chicago. To some extent, the courtroom is but an elaborate, well-stocked facade, a theatre in which the filmmaker can once again cross-examine the checks-and-balances of due process and wider American democracy. In this case, the process was uneven and uneasy: the trial was presided over by an antiquated crank, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, properly magisterial), who set a lowish bar in getting everyone's names wrong, while testimony was frequently interrupted by heckles from the gallery and dock, where the younger Hoffman and his comrade Rubin were competing to chalk up contempt citations. Still, the film adheres to the Sorkin article of faith: talk as a means of working things out, initiating and enacting justice, finding common ground. When the Judge has Seale bound and gagged, it's the negative image of all those walk-and-talks that represented American liberty in The West Wing; the credits play out to a rousing, nominate-this anthem bearing the title "Hear My Voice". Frankly, there are long stretches of The Trial of the Chicago 7 where it's impossible to hear much else.

There are signs, however, that Sorkin's talk has started to stretch a little thin when extended over a bigger canvas. He finds a natural forum amid the cut-and-thrust of the courtroom, with its interjections and running tensions (Seale's lawyer is a no-show, so he has to speak for himself, to the Judge's growing displeasure); this may well end up the season's sole awards contender to pivot on a possessive pronoun - Sorkin's reminder we need to be precise with the words we use - so script nominations would appear to be in the bag. Elsewhere, the writing struck this ear as cursory wherever it needed to be clinching and conclusive. Hoffman's structuring stand-up routines, for one, are lamentably flat: where Baron Cohen has successfully disappeared inside his own comic creations, here he looks awkward, stranded by subpar material. The sporadic forays into race-relations are as tentative as anything in The West Wing. And it does seem very male: its signature scene comes when a woman buys Rubin a drink in a bar, and he responds by mansplaining the origins of the Tom Collins. (Her response to that is a dad joke. The vaulting, Hecht-like wit of those Josh-and-Donna exchanges seem a long time ago.) You look to Sorkin the director to nudge us past these bumps and fumbles, and he's busy making a synthetic approximation of the old studio style: it's slick enough, and it'll play especially well at home - or on awards screeners - where the modest scope of its drama will be disguised, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 often feels more corralled than directed. Sorkin gets the dickering defendants to realise they're all on the same team, shows the boyish prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wavering out of fondness for these crazy peaceniks, then steers everybody towards a standing-ovation finale that might well seem like dreadful self-congratulation and self-satisfaction anywhere outside liberal American hotspots. Fully five minutes of onscreen footnotes follow, underlining the general lack of spontaneity; I found myself longing for the dynamism and starry oomph of the Sorkin-penned A Few Good Men - and that was directed by the not-exactly-radical Rob Reiner.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Netflix.

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