‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ lacks Sorkin’s poetic prowess

Scott Powell

Vintage film reel graphic.
Collegian Film Reviews Graphic (Rachel Macias | The Collegian)

There is no screenwriter more musical than Aaron Sorkin. His dialogue flows so whimsically and energetically through each scene in his films — be it Mark Zuckerberg’s ice-cold, tommy-gun speed laceration of his rivals’ creative powers in “The Social Network,” Will McAvoy’s stone-faced denouncement of America’s assumed greatness in “The Newsroom” or, most famously, Colonel Nathan Jessup’s jaw-clenched, spit-splattering defense of the military in “A Few Good Men”; the words and sentences that dance out of the lips of Sorkin’s characters are nothing short of virtuosic.

Unfortunately, this is not quite the case for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which, while imbued with Sorkin’s trademark lightning-fast rhythm, lacks the same energy and tension that makes his previous films so memorable, causing it to come off more like a dry, sputtering morse code message than a Beethoven symphony — simply clicking and clacking along in a smart but lukewarm monotone.

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The differences between the hippie youth culture and the more conservative institutions were not matters of war and peace but of words and beliefs. And when language itself is the matter of dispute between two parties, civility cannot thrive.”

Telling the story of the seven anti-Vietnam war activists accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the corruption-riddled trial that followed, the film treads in territory not unfamiliar to the veteran Sorkin, who, with films like “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network” as well as TV shows like “The West Wing,” has mastered the poetry that underlies the world of law and politics and the moral logic at the root of the conflicts that occur within those realms. 

However, this kind of moral logic requires one thing in order to be understood — diplomacy. And this is where “Chicago 7″ falls short. The whole film seems to be an attempt by Sorkin to strip the 1960s of everything that made them wild, crazy and sexy and reframe the counterculture that spurred its changes as just a bunch of boring, civilized, All-American college boys.

While it may be true that the ’60s counterculture was less rambunctious than its cultural mythos has made it out to be, and while a plea for civility in public discourse may be a valuable message to our deeply disillusioned, sensation-seeking political climate, what “Chicago 7″ fails to recognize is that the ‘60s, like today, were not defined by clashes over ideology but rather clashes over the methods of discourse itself. 

Certainly, the counterculture used opposition to the Vietnam War as an ideological rallying cry for their cause, but the changes that they sought far surpassed an elimination of the draft. They were railing not only against war but, more importantly, against the narrow methods of communication elite institutions used to mitigate reactions to their often corrupt and destructive policies. The movement was not merely a revolt against the government’s policies and how well those policies complimented the nation’s values and purpose — more significantly, it was a revolt against those values themselves and the linguistic structures that reinforced them. 

The differences between the hippie youth culture and the more conservative institutions were not matters of war and peace but of words and beliefs. And when language itself is the matter of dispute between two parties, civility cannot thrive.

If someone insults you in Klingon and you don’t speak Klingon, you can’t be offended.”

This is where “Chicago 7″ falls flat. Sorkin’s films, like Shakespeare’s plays, get life from their dialogue and the poetic way that dialogue expresses the intellectual roots of the ideologies that divide us. However, this poetry is only effective when the parties at play speak the same language. This is why Sorkin’s style works so well in traditional courtroom dramas. Here, the characters know what they want, and they know how to express it, and they know precisely how it will land on their opponent.

This is what makes Sorkin’s dialogue symphonic. One character may be a cello and one character may be a violin, but both characters ultimately understand the greater, overarching piece they are trying to bring to life, and they understand their place within that piece. While the points they are trying to get across may contradict one another, there is nonetheless a unity in their understanding of the logic that has led them to their respective conclusions. They understand how the other thinks and how they reach the conclusions they are defending and don’t need to worry about misinterpreting their opponent the way we often do in our everyday speech. They are able to respond to words alone.

The dilemma that drove the political upheaval of the 1960s was an inability for the established institutions of the day to understand or make sense out of the anti-establishment rhetoric of the youth movement. The counterculture revolutionaries were constantly exploring and developing new forms of expression that didn’t align with — and often were meant exclusively to subvert and confuse — the established methods of communication. They were not trying to win the game by proving any particular point — instead they were trying to change its rules. 

The tension here comes from the lack of understanding between the court and the defendants. They can’t understand what the other is talking about, and so the sharp, pointed comments they shoot at one another — the comments which Sorkin writes so well — don’t pierce their opponents in any meaningful way but instead simply zip past them. If someone insults you in Klingon and you don’t speak Klingon, you can’t be offended.

This lack of intellectual connection or understanding ultimately leads “The Trial of the Chicago 7″ to be a jazzy-tempoed but ultimately soulless plea for civility in a society where the means of maintaining civility have eroded. 

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Scott Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.