Random Notes on The Trial of the Chicago 7

⚠️ This post contains spoilers.

I tried for three days to write a cohesive review of Aaron Sorkin’s latest film The Trial of the Chicago 7, but it’s a film that is stubbornly difficult to distill in a way that isn’t just a recitation of the actual historical events. My thoughts, like the film, are disjointed and would require more time to flush out each of them individually than the format of a single review would allow. So I’ve given up and instead have decided to simply present a list of random notes on the film which cover the points that resonated with me the most. Enjoy!

Ever heard of the Chicago 7? That was me. And, uh, six other guys.

  • Too many characters! A huge cast that is largely unnecessary since the story ultimately settles on Hayden and Hoffman. To that end, Sorkin is overly committed to his characters and his dialogue, allowing scenes between characters to go on far too long at the expense of moving the plot along.

  • Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as Abbie Hoffman hijacks the entire movie. At times it feels like the Sacha Baron Cohen show which only serves to derail the narrative.

  • Difficult to follow, time-jumpy structure that doesn’t know what point it’s trying to make. Is it about the complicity of the cops and the FBI in the violence? Is it about the efficacy of civil disobedience? Is it about using a rigged trial as a publicity tactic? 

  • Not one single woman character of any consequence, the only one with any significant screen time is an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates and betrays the protesters (not surprisingly a character invented by Sorkin from whole cloth). Boy too bad there weren’t any notable women involved in the antiwar movement at the time he could have added to the story oh well!!!! Also includes a scene of attempted rape apparently for the exclusive purpose of making one of the male characters look more noble for stopping it. Whee!!

  • Bobby Seale’s story is the most compelling aspect of the film, but he’s not given interiority like the white characters are, and his character serves as a sacrificial lamb purely to demonstrate the ruthlessness of the court. He never gets any on-screen justice, he exists to show the white characters how good they have it.

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wasted in a non-role.

  • Frank Langella is, as always, a masterful villain who demonstrates the reactionary pettiness of a white male establishment in a position of power. He defies norms and openly flouts the constitutional rights of the defendants because he can and nobody is there to stop him, just like current Republican leadership.

  • The story is too big for a 2-hour narrative, it should have been a series. Introduce your characters properly which gives you the opportunity to create more substantive female characters; you have time to give Seale a fuller backstory; you can show all of the events that happened during the convention; you can show the machinations of the cops and the FBI behind the scenes; then show the trial itself and the aftermath.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.