Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the least strange thing that was up for an Oscar this year. It was nominated for six awards and lost all six, which is not unheard of, but the one surprising detail is that it didn’t win for writing. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed it, has been nominated three times before but only won for The Social Network. Maybe it’s not strange that he didn’t win given that history, but this felt like the Most Writing, at least, and that has to be worth something. Emerald Fennell won for Promising Young Woman, and should have, but it’s surprising to see the Academy agree with that.

Aaron Sorkin complaints are a little predictable in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate. I loved Sports Night and The West Wing like everyone else and I think The Social Network is great. You can pick a ton of other pieces of work from his career to highlight, but I still think his best work is the very strange, but necessarily strange, Steve Jobs. The script is designed to sell a tightly wound, intense person as the centerpiece that holds things together and to then unravel to show us how that isn’t always true. The performances are strong, but it’s the script that makes it go. There are none of the problems that dog The Theory of Everything or a million other “real” stories from the era. It’s way too tight, but so was Jobs himself. It works because the style fits the subject.

This gets to the complaints. Sorkin can apparently only do this one thing, though he does it to such a degree that he’s made a career out of it. Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than a decade before he directed it and it feels like it, at times. Every creative person has their “tells” and the Sorkin dialogue is his. There are unbearable moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the entire movie feels relentless. It does what he wants it to do, which is what makes it an unquestionable success. It’s simply a matter of taste of if that is what you, the viewer, want it to be, that will determine if this is good or not.

I think people are too hard on Sorkin, usually, but this movie really make me question that defense. I liked it, broadly speaking, but I don’t remember the last movie watching experience where I was that aware I was watching a movie. Characters never take a moment to listen to each other. Everyone barrels into every scene already talking and leaves still talking. It feels unnecessary to belabor this point because if you know anything about Sorkin you already expect this. He wrote his version of this story and then directed it. It ended up as you’d expect and everyone liked it enough to nominate it but no one liked it enough to let it win anything.

The Chicago 7, which were 8 before they were 7, were men on trial for inciting a riot after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Sorkin met Steven Spielberg and agreed to write the screenplay after hearing the story, but ultimately he had to direct it after several directors moved on from the project. It all came to fruition when a cast of lots and lots of strange, but great, people joined Sorkin and told the story. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly great as the straight-laced Tom Hayden who just wants everyone to take this whole trial seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play the buddy duo of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who want to get high and make jokes. Mark Rylance brings a lot of humor to a simple part as the defense attorney for the group. The list goes on and on and on.

I won’t mention everyone, but Frank Langella as the crooked judge who famously likely lost this case for the state, ultimately, by going over the top in courtroom antics that the audience will find ridiculous but mostly happened, really steals the show. Cohen was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Daniel Kaluuya, who somehow was not the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, but you could pick a lot of these people and call them the best performance here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the state’s lead dog trying to nail the group. The term “ensemble cast” is obvious, but it’s rare that it’s this big. I just don’t have the room to go into everyone, but even the smaller parts here are carried with serious weight, down to essentially a cameo from Michael Keaton.

All of these truly excellent performances are why you should watch it, but Aaron Sorkin is why you maybe shouldn’t. If you aren’t buying what he’s selling already, you’re going to hate this. It’s even more of what he always does and it really does come over and over like body blows. The one-liners are constant and the writing is so tight it chokes any moment you might reflect on the seriousness of the situation. The story is already grand, but not necessarily one everyone will already know, but Sorkin really does pound it into a tight cube with insistent, witty dialogue. Every individual line is perfect, you could not dispute any of this, but the result of them all chaining together makes everyone feel like someone pretending to be a person.

Which they are, right? It’s only a real complaint when you compare it to everything else you’ll see this year and, really, every other year. Sorkin cannot let go and let the movie be more than a movie. He can’t let people make mistakes and catch those genius accidents. Everything is so perfect that you’d think someone painted the frames. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it looks fine, it’s that it’s paced like someone cut every syllable together and sweat over the perfect final version. It doesn’t feel as totally starry-eyed as The West Wing, though the ending is a little too twinkly, but it just isn’t as messy as it should be.

It’s still pretty solid and it’s extremely watchable, but it’s just the best possible version of what Sorkin seems to be interested in making. It all feels disposable, though, but that may be the nature of a courtroom drama. There are familiar beats to these stories that lose their weight once the verdict comes down. There is a version of this that complicates the characters further and paints history as complicated and as grainy as it actually was, with more complex arguments than Hayden and Hoffman debating political power as voting through a clear, direct, heavily pointed at modern lens, but that isn’t what Sorkin wants. He got what he wanted by writing and directing, and the result is a very watchable, very tiresome, very perfect version of what he wanted to make. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Persona has a strong case to be the best movie ever made. This is not the best work that anyone involved in it has ever made, except Eddie Redmayne, who I don’t really like in anything else.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, because it failed the last check. I do think it’s fine, if the review didn’t make that clear, I just think Sorkin is capable of more than this. I think we’re capable as an audience of making connections he refuses to let be subtle. I think if you pull out any two minute clip of this movie you will be impressed, but the entirety of the whole thing feels insubstantial. I diagnose the problem as the too-tight writing, but I’d love to hear what other people think. It’s not a bad movie, just a missed opportunity, and only one I call out because what is there is good, but could have been great.

You can watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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