Anyone who has been paying attention to the news recently might conclude that Karl Marx was wrong. History doesn’t repeat itself, and it’s usually tragedy and farce at the same time.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, sloppy re-enactment of a famous real-life slice of American political courtroom drama, understands that the somber and the ridiculous have a habit of becoming entwined. Some of the film’s unwieldiness, as well as its energy, comes from the way it combines banana-peel gags with lectures on the nutritional importance of potassium. (That’s a metaphor. The characters like to point out when they’re using metaphors.) There’s a lot of deadly serious stuff in here — about war and peace, justice and racism, democracy and order — and a fair bit of silliness as well, some of it intentional.
It’s possible that the ’60s were really like that. On the other hand, an Aaron Sorkin movie rarely has much to do with what anything was really like. This isn’t meant dismissively. Sorkin has never been a realist. His sensibility is rhetorical, theatrical, argumentative. He’s a master of big speeches and sitcom beats, of walk-and-talk dialectics, of earnest mansplaining and liberal wishful thinking. He gave us “The West Wing” on television and “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway, for goodness’ sake. Showmanship in the service of high civic purpose is his thing.
Here, he assembles a remarkable collection of performers in what might be described — again, not dismissively — as a Very Special Sober Episode of “Drunk History.” The subject is the federal trial, beginning in September 1969 and stretching into the following year, of eight prominent political radicals. Among them were Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, the notorious Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther Party.
The eight were accused of conspiring to cause the riots that had broken out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Seale was dropped from the case before verdicts were reached, leaving seven.) Sorkin grounds the often absurd spectacle of their prosecution — including the erratic behavior of the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) — in the violence and paranoia of the times. He starts with the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the spring of ’68, flashes back frequently from the trial to the riots, and never loses sight of the relentless death toll in Vietnam.
Reminders of that war help, at least partly, to inoculate “The Trial of the Chicago 7” against the cynical trivialization that so often afflicts pop-cultural recollections of the ’60s. The movie is interested in the politics of the time, as manifested both in the streets and in the corridors of power. An early scene brings the prosecutors (played by J.C. MacKenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) into the office of John Mitchell (John Doman), Richard Nixon’s newly installed attorney general, who sees the conspiracy charges as a way of taking revenge on both the antiwar movement and his predecessor, Ramsey Clark. (Clark shows up later in the always-welcome person of Michael Keaton.)
For their part, the defendants, while united in opposition to the war, disagree on style, tactics and strategy. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is an uncompromising pacifist. Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the head of the Chicago Panthers, Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), favor more confrontational methods. Hoffman, played as a shaggy jokester with a wayward Boston accent by Sacha Baron Cohen, is frequently at odds with Hayden, a clean-cut avatar of righteousness played by the eminently sober Eddie Redmayne.
That rivalry — the clash of two smart guys who have trouble separating ego from idealism — is the Sorkinian engine of the plot, giving shape and momentum to a sprawling and crowded pageant. The casting is eccentric (and Anglocentric too), but the emphatic playacting gives way to a few moments of subtlety. Many of these come from Mark Rylance as the defense lawyer William Kunstler, an intriguing mixture of pragmatism and inscrutability.
“Succession” fans will be amused to see Jeremy Strong — the anguished, high-strung Kendall Roy — as Rubin, Hoffman’s stoner sidekick and Sorkin’s designated holy fool. When Hayden accuses Hoffman (metaphorically) of trading a prize cow for a handful of magic beans, it’s Rubin who notes that all in all, that turned out not to be such a bad deal.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a mixed bag. While Sorkin draws some of his dialogue from court transcripts, he also exercises the historical dramatist’s prerogative to embellish, streamline and invent. Some of the liberties he takes help to produce a leaner, clearer story, while others — an undercover F.B.I. agent (Caitlin FitzGerald) who tries to honey-trap Rubin; a shot of female protesters burning their bras in Grant Park — serve no useful purpose.
I don’t think, on balance, that this is a very good movie. It’s talky and clumsy, alternating between self-importance and clowning. But it’s also not a movie that can be easily shaken off. Partly this is an accident of timing. Echoes of 1968 seem to be everywhere in this election year: the appeals to law and order, the rumors of radicals sowing disorder in the streets, the clashes between police and citizens.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” offers an absorbing account, in some ways alarming and in some ways reassuring, of an earlier moment of polarization and violent conflict. It isn’t just like now, but the analogies are enough to get you thinking about what happens in a democracy when state power confronts popular dissent. A loud, chaotic mess. A tragedy and a farce. And that’s if we’re lucky.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Rated R. Blood in the streets, disorder in the court. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. In theaters and on Netflix. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.