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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Even taken purely as fiction, the latest film by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin is a mess of cognitive dissonance, a film profoundly at odds with itself. 

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In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, protestors against the Vietnam War were brutally attacked by Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard. The following year, the incoming Nixon administration brought federal charges of conspiracy to riot against the peace activists that it deemed responsible.

The resulting show trial is the subject of The Trial of the Chicago 7, the latest pacey, watchable and politically illiterate drama from The West Wing creator, Aaron Sorkin. It’s a film profoundly at odds with itself. Unable to understand the values of its own characters, it instead indulges in an insipid meditation on the soul of America’s judicial institutions.

Even some propulsive editing and a series of very strong performances – foremost among them, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman – cannot save the film from Sorkin’s embarrassing tangle with his material.

Sorkin is not, fortunately for him, obliged to give an accurate rendition of historical events. For those interested, the punky animated documentary Chicago 10 is a much better account. But even taken purely as fiction, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a mess of cognitive dissonance.

At one point, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), one of the defendants, is shown keeping a record of every American soldier killed in Vietnam since the beginning of the trial. This, he says, is so that he doesn’t forget “who this is really about”.

This moment is emblematic of the whole film. Sorkin has, disgracefully, excised the real-life activists’ concerns for Vietnamese lives as well as those of Americans. But he has also presented an admirable sentiment that his film nowhere manifests.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not really about the crime of the Vietnam War. Nor is it about the crimes of a system that would prosecute peace activists for being beaten and tear-gassed by police. It’s about Aaron Sorkin’s determination to love the American courtroom anyway. And it culminates in a saccharine, patriotic ending that is almost as offensive to its audience as it is to its purported subjects.

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