Aaron Sorkin has delivered a fast paced, highly entertaining film about the “theater as trial” of the Chicago 7. They would have been the Chicago 8 but Black Panther activist Bobby Seale, after being literally bound and gagged for talking too much during the proceedings, was given a separate trial, leaving the 7 to exploit the moment for all it was worth. At its core was a general protest against the Vietnam war, at least that is what Tom Hayden wanted (played by the very British Eddie Redmayne). But Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) preferred revolution as theater. They never met a publicity event they didn’t like.
The last time Aaron Sorkin directed a film it was not exactly a success. It was almost there – it showed a work in progress. But this time out, he put it all together quite nicely. Working with talented editor Alan Baumgarten and great cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Sorkin has made what will probably be seen as one of the best films of the year.
The main conflict in the film is between Hayden’s more serious approach to protesting Vietnam and the theatrics of the Yippies. One of the best scene is Hayden confronting Hoffman and calling him out on why that tact worked against the progressive ideas he was trying to put forth and eventually meant losing election after election. Hayden was right, and clearly Sorkin knows this, but there was something in Hoffman and Rubin’s willingness to put everything on the line like they did, to poke the beast of government oppression that was admirable all the same.
One of the reasons Chicago 7 works is the score, by Daniel Pemberton, along with the editing, that keeps pace with Sorkin’s dialogue. This is no easy feat in a very talky movie that clock in at a little over 2 hours. One of the problems with writers becoming directors is that, as Woody Allen once said, “everybody’s married to every line.”
The team of ensemble actors handle the material deftly, and this time out not every character talks like Aaron Sorkin. He has taken great care to have them all speak differently from each other, which allows who they are, or who they were, to come through more clearly. Three prominent Brits must tackle the American dialect (never my favorite thing in the world) but they mostly do a good job adjusting their vowels. Sacha Baron Cohen must manage what appears to be a Brooklyn accent, Redmayne must do a Michigander Hayden. and Mark Rylance plays famed civil rights defender William Kunstler, Ivy League by way of the Bronx.
Stealing the movie, though, is Frank Langella as the sometimes confused but very conservative judge that has no patience for any of the defendants and is particularly harsh with Bobby Seale. His sentence of five years in prison for the Chicago 7 was overturned on appeal. But Langella makes a great villain. I chafe at any suggestion that he represents Trump or the GOP. These are apples and oranges. While he may be similar to someone like Mitch McConnell, what makes Langella’s performance so good is that he doesn’t believe himself to be their enemy, nor does he sneer the way the McConnell does.
These days, there are clear partisan divides but back in 1968 the divides were not necessarily along political lines. They were more establishment vs. anti-establishment. Pro-Vietnam vs. anti-Vietnam. It was cultural much more than it was political. If Langella played his role like a McConnell type it would not have been an authentic performance, and the less Sorkin tries to send a message about right now the better the movie succeeds. The reason being, the response to what is happening now is just as complex as it was then. There aren’t necessary “good and evil” sides to protests that turn violent. It just depends on what it is you’re fighting for.
The war in Vietnam was seen as a cause worth fighting for, and history has vindicated the soldiers who put it all on the line back then and died doing their duty. Even if the public was increasingly against the war, they were also most against the protesters. No one actively wants chaos in the streets except those creating it.
To understand what happened after the 1960s one only needs to look at the trajectory of one of the founding Yippie members, Jerry Rubin. While leading protests was political theater from 1968 to 1972, after McGovern lost Rubin shucked it all and became a millionaire investor. And that my friends is the Big Chill. The activists who tuned in, dropped out, and then eventually sold out, looking back on their glory days when it was all a matter of life or death, stopping the Vietnam war.
Once the war ended, around the mid-1970s, what was there left to do? Nixon was in power, Carter for just one term and then Ronald Reagan who made greed good again in 1980 as the American power structure swung right. That was how the 1960s counterculture movement went for many – it swung left and then it swung right. Many refer to this as the pendulum swing and we are in the midst of one right now.
Americans who were able to do so happily left the counterculture behind to own homes, buckle down, and get comfortable. Society would not be cracked open again until 2008. The same kind of culture war that raged in 1968 is raging now.
If history holds, America will come out of the Obama presidency the way it did the JFK presidency, a cultural rebirth that led to uprisings of the underclass – women, people of color, LGBT activists. But it was all too much for the “silent majority” who decided to put Republicans in power instead to tamp down the enduring chaos that, by then, seemed to have led to violence, high crime, even death on college campuses and in the swanky hills of Bel Air.
But Tom Hayden’s message in the film rings the most clear, if we’re talking about messages – and that is that the war was a tragic mistake that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. That brave Americans stood up to it is what this country is about. Sorkin’s message is that Americans should have that right as citizens in a free country.
What remains true is that protests still must be theater to capture the attention of the public. And unfortunately sometimes that means they must turn to riots and violence. And that, in turns, emboldens those who oppose and oppress them.
Aaron Sorkin has made a film that communicates a strong message about political dissent. This was an era where the conservatives were the ones condemning and censoring speech and art. What a shame that now the American left seems all too willing to go in that direction to serve a greater agenda, something the Chicago 7 or Chicago 8 would most definitely be against.