Aaron Sorkin and Tales of Good and Bad Government
Aaron Sorkin is enjoying a bit of a moment. Sorkin gets to witness the Netflix wide-release of his second directed film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, only a day after the HBO Max release of The West Wing quasi-reunion special (the staged theatrical production of the election themed episode ‘Hartsfield Landing,’) as a benefit for the Michelle Obama led voting rights group: When We All Vote. West Wing fans have been clamoring for a reunion almost since the show went off the air, and Sorkin’s new film is already garnering a significant amount of award buzz.
Sorkin can be a bit polarizing as an auteur, trafficking in a Capra-esque idealism that is a bit out of step with the more pervasive cynicism of our times. A modern audience will accept fairytale-like stories about smart and good-hearted people where everything turns out alright in the end, but they usually need to involve lightsabers, superheroes, or singing cartoons. There is something of a shared spirit between these kinds of stories and Aaron Sorkin’s work, although he tends to set his stories in courtrooms and offices where important work is being done.
Both of these recent projects share that they are stories of another time that find renewed relevance today. Sorkin specifically chose the ‘Hartsfield Landing’ episode of The West Wing, because it is a love letter to voting and the peaceful transition of power. The Trial of the Chicago 7, is a love letter of a different kind, existing somewhere on the opposite end of that spectrum. It celebrates the myriad of ways that people work to oppose and remedy government dysfunction.
The centerpiece of ‘Hartsfield Landing,’ is a lightly fictionalized version of the small New Hampshire towns, like Dixville Notch, that are able to open their polls at midnight on Election Day. These towns report their results as soon as everyone has finished voting, making them one of the very first places in the nation to report results. Parallel to this story is an unfolding international crisis that hinges on voting rights in Taiwan.
Throughout the episode - in a typically Sorkin extra-on-the-nose detail - President Bartlett is playing multiple literal games of chess with his staff, while waiting for the metaphorical chess moves from the Chinese government. Simultaneously, a member of his staff spends the day lobbying a couple from Hartsfield Landing to vote for Bartlett, hammering in the idea that not only does every vote matter, but it matters that every voter be heard, and be allowed to make up their own mind. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t really do subtlety or ambiguity. There is a moral to this story: voting and democracy are sacred human inventions that need to be revered and protected. Sorkin is going to find a few different entertaining ways to tell you the lesson, which will tie together at the end in an unexpected way, but you will not be left in the dark about what the lesson is and where he stands.
In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin is telling a story that could function as a prequel to a West Wing episode. Here is what happens when government and democracy become dysfunctional, and here is what has to happen in order to set things right again. Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 suffers, is that since Sorkin is working with actual events, he sometimes has to stretch things a bit to achieve the moral lesson and narrative arc he’s going for.
There are any number of reviews and articles that can outline the ways in which this movie departs from the actual events, and importantly, there is nothing in this film remotely as egregious as the invented relationship that Sorkin used as a narrative frame for The Social Network. I’m not going to get into those differences here, as having that knowledge so fresh in mind going into watching this film detracted from my experience in a way that went away entirely upon rewatch. I would recommend going into Chicago 7 fresh, and if you are so inclined to investigate further after watching the film, there is a wonderful audiobook dramatization of the trial transcript: The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Complete Transcript. Staring, among others, Jeff Daniels and J.K. Simmons, it offers a fuller and more faithful portrait of the events of the trial.
Regarding the politics of this film, Sorkin lets you clearly know who the good guys are, and allows whatever tension there is on that front to rest on whose methods and strategy are best. Our story is the protesting of the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the conspiracy trial of the organizers of those protests. Sorkin lets us know that the Vietnam War was a great wrong in need of remedy, that the protests were righteous, and that whatever faults our protagonists may have, responsibility for the violence that occurred, rests at the feet of police and government officials standing in the way of progress. Within those dynamics, Sorkin’s sympathies are least with the revolutionaries, most often siding with those characters who are doing their best to work within the system, but still willing to endorse the measures good people feel are sometimes needed in order to address injustice. Sorkin takes great pains to make sure that there are likable characters within the government, police, and the prosecution, seemingly to make clear that his problem is not with the system, per se, but the bad actors within that system.
Aiding in telling this story is a truly wonderful cast, that gives Sorkin an opportunity to flash his other great skill: managing an ensemble in a way that gives everyone a chance to shine. Each of the defendants on trial is actualized in a way that lets each of the characters be unique and memorable, while everyone still feels part of the same world. Frank Langella does heroic work, making the actually clownish Judge Hoffman into a grounded and believable character. Micheal Keaton completely owns the screen for his critical few minutes in the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes the most out of the largely thankless role as the lead prosecutor. When award season rolls around, the biggest challenge may be separating out who are the lead actors and who are the supporting actors. I would expect, at least, that Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, and Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, will get nominations. Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin is deserving and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale is a wonder.
As a film, it’s well directed and edited. The opening montage is a masterclass in setup. We get character building introductions to most of the key players, we get an overview of where the war and the draft stand, we get introduced to the different factions that are organizing the protest, and all this without feeling like an info dump. Throughout the film, the same key events are seamlessly intercut from multiple perspectives and timeframes, as well as being intercut with actual 1968 footage. As a director, Sorkin has acquired himself quite capably.
In terms of legacy, I expect this movie to have an interesting one. Aaron Sorkin has faithfully told an important story of protest and revolutionary figures, but one so mild-mannered that it can be used to eat up three days of a high school social studies class at the end of the semester - perhaps skipping the scene where Jerry Rubin gives a detailed lesson on how to make a Molotov cocktail. There is language and bloodshed, that you wouldn’t find in a West Wing episode, but in terms of the kinds of stories they are and how they are told, they’re two sides of the same coin. That may not be for everyone, but it happens to be exactly what I want most these days.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.