There is no screenwriter more musical than Aaron Sorkin. The way 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’s creative powers in The Social Network, Will McAvoy’s stone-faced denouncement of America’s assumed “greatness” in The Newsroom, or, most famously, Jack Nicholson’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 Seven 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 Beethovian symphony– simply clicking and clacking and clucking along in a smart but lukewarm monotone.
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 Trial of the Chicago Seven falls short. The whole film seems to be an attempt by Sorkin to strip the sixties of everything that made them wild and crazy and sexy, and reframe the counter-culture that spurred its changes as just a bunch of boring, civilized, All-American college boys.
While it may be true that the 1960s 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 Seven 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 words and beliefs. And when language itself is the matter of dispute between two parties, civility cannot thrive.
This is where Chicago Seven 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. When they know and can trust that, whether or not they fully agree with each other, they are at least playing the same linguistic game, and following the same linguistic rules, and thus understand precisely what it is their opponent is attempting to communicate at any point. This is why Sorkin’s style works so well in traditional courtroom dramas like A Few Good Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the litigation sequences in The Social Network. 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, 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 are playing the same game and they know it. They understand how the other thinks, and how they reach the conclusions they are defending, and so 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. Political discourse had hitherto been a performance of Beethoven’s fifth, each separate interest group and institution contributing their contrasting, though measured takes on issues in a civilized fashion– and then when it came time for these ragamuffins’s french horn solo, they started rapping.
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 Seven to be a jazzy-tempoed, but ultimately soulless plea for civility in a society where the means of maintaining civility have eroded.