Every once in a while, really for no reason, I’ll watch the opening scene from the first episode of The Newsroom. It’s easy to find on YouTube — there are several different clips of it available — but the most popular has over 8.8 million views. That one is titled “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…”
The clip stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an arrogant liberal news anchor who’s ready to shoot down the bullshit notion that America is the greatest country in the world. To do so, he launches into a passionate rant about all the reasons why America isn’t the greatest country in the world — and why it used to be. The monologue is delivered by Daniels in a showy, actorly way that’s meant to clue in the audience, “Hey, this is what The Newsroom is all about.” It’s not so much a speech as it is a position paper. It’s completely ridiculous and patronizing and also sexist. (McAvoy snidely refers to the college student who benignly asked the question as “Sorority Girl” before smugly setting her whole whippersnapper generation on fire.)
So why do I occasionally watch this dopey clip? Because it’s written by Aaron Sorkin, and even though I find him insufferable in lots of ways, I have to own up to the fact that I find his brand of showboating, in small doses, undeniably appealing. Far from the “most honest three and a half minutes of television,” the Newsroom clip is merely one more indication of what Sorkin enjoys doing more than anybody else on the planet. There are plenty of better, deeper, smarter and more interesting writers than Sorkin, but nobody is like him. Often, that’s a good thing. But every once in a while, I watch that clip because, now and again, I’m a sucker for his dick-swinging, chest-thumping, string-section-stirring shamelessness. The reason why everybody despises him is the exact same reason why I occasionally dig him. Sometimes I think I like him precisely because he drives other people nuts. Why deny yourself the pleasure of his blowhard grandstanding?
Available Friday on Netflix, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the second film he’s written and directed, which means it’s unfiltered Sorkin. To my mind, his best movies — A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network — are the ones in which someone else was behind the camera. You need another presence to tamp down his worst impulses and make sure the characters sound like real people — as opposed to Sorkinator 1000s who walk around spouting his achingly witty quips and amped-up-to-11 soliloquies. But even so, his new film has enough galvanizing scenes, great performances and, yes, wonderfully Sorkin-y moments that it’s hard to resist. There’s a good chance you’ll spend at least a third of Chicago 7 shaking your head at the man’s indulgences — and if you hate the guy, well, nothing here will change your opinion. But for folks like me who acknowledge his major weaknesses while sometimes getting a kick out of them, despite ourselves, this political drama has plenty of his usual narrative bells and whistles. God bless him, he just can’t help himself.
The film explores the 1969 courtroom saga of the men charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It’s a high-octane cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, who wasn’t even part of the original seven defendants but was lumped in with them. (Since he’s the only Black defendant, it doesn’t take a genius to guess why the federal government figured his inclusion with the others would strengthen its case.) You’ve got Oscar-winner Mark Rylance playing their noble lawyer William Kunstler, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz, the attorney who’s been assigned to take them down, even though he has misgivings about this prosecution. And perhaps best of all is Frank Langella as the cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman, who seems ready to convict these damn dirty hippies before the trial even starts.
Whereas Sorkin’s directorial debut, the crime drama Molly’s Game, seemed a bit out of his wheelhouse, a courtroom procedural that allows people to pontificate about America is very much his thing. And one of the pleasures of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is its absolute predictability: Whether you like Sorkin or loathe him, this movie is profoundly exactly the film you think it’s going to be. Both inside and outside of the courtroom, our main characters argue their points of view in stunningly well-structured, paragraphs-long orations that don’t resemble anything related to normal human speech patterns. (Sorry, West Wing fans: There aren’t a lot of walk-and-talk scenes, though.) And you needn’t wonder if The Trial of the Chicago 7 will go out of its way to be obvious about the fact that it wants us to view this bygone struggle in the light of our current battle to maintain American democracy — Sorkin will very happily connect those dots for you. Like the best (and worst) of Sorkin, the movie puffs itself up to be a Very Important Artistic Statement. You need chutzpah — or an inexhaustible amount of self-regard — to make a movie like this. Talent helps, too.
The movie focuses primarily on the initial trial, which lasted about five months, and flashbacks to that tumultuous 1968 convention. The defendants always asserted that they barely knew one another — and that aggressive law enforcement provoked the rioting, not the demonstrators — but Sorkin doesn’t have much feel for big action-y set pieces, so the chaos and violence of 1968 doesn’t come through particularly strongly. Not surprisingly, his strength is words and characters, and as a result The Trial of the Chicago 7 works best as a verbal volley back and forth between combatants. Rylance is a great crusading angel protecting his clients, while Langella seems to be having a ball playing Terrible Conservative White Man, his character doing everything in his power to weaken the defendants’ case. (He might as well be the uptight college president who wants to kick John Belushi’s frat off campus.) Then there’s the battle within the Chicago 7 between Baron Cohen and Redmayne, whose Hoffman and Hayden see the world very differently, although they’re both technically lefties. (Hoffman thinks Hayden is a wimpy sellout, while Hayden views Hoffman as a frivolous provocateur who’s torpedoing the progressive cause for the sake of his ego.) The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a world dominated by men showing off their elocution and the size of their brains.
Amidst all the punchy zingers and flowery turns of phrase, though, there’s very little nuance to be found — which makes sense since moral ambiguity isn’t Sorkin’s bag. As a scenarist, he likes working from a bold thesis and then pounding his points home, loudly and often. (I adore The Social Network, but that movie basically boils down to “Look what a nerd created because a girl dumped him.”) His new film wants us to know, unequivocally, that American liberty is under constant threat from the right, which wants to weaken free speech, tear down democracy, suppress dissent and destroy what made this country so great in the first place. He won’t stop hyperventilating until you agree he’s a genius for getting so worked up about issues that all of us are already worried about.
It’s easy to make fun of Sorkin, but I can’t feel too superior to his grandiosity because, well, a lot of this movie works very well — and it’s precisely because of the material’s rich Sorkin-ness. In a sense, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the second half of Will McAvoy’s Newsroom speech, the part where he huffily talks about the principles that once powered this nation. It’s the speech Sorkin’s characters always give, in one form or another, in his films and TV shows: The bad guys want to destroy America. We have to stand vigilant against them. Let me explain all that to you in a big purple-prose monologue that will show you how smart I am. I’m sucker enough to fall for it every time.
As to be expected, Sorkin utterly overdoes everything in The Trial of the Chicago 7. His belief that we need him to save democracy is preposterous, but it’s also sort of touching. Find you a partner who loves you as much as Aaron Sorkin loves America — and the sound of his own voice.