The Trial of the Chicago 7 (les Sept de Chicago) : a title that has long remained an unfulfilled cinephile’s fantasy, these phantom scenarios as there are swarms in the attics of world cinema. We hear about it for the first time about fifteen years ago: Aaron Sorkin is then “the” Hollywood scriptwriter who smiles at everything. Creator of To the White House, he left the series for some time and is in the middle of a professional reconfiguration. TV? Cinema? His next move sera crucial.
Contacted by Spielberg, he was instructed by the star Hollywood director to think up a script on the trial of the “Chicago Seven”: in 1969, seven representatives of the American leftist protest were tried for having incited young people to riot, on the sidelines of anti-Vietnam demonstrations, during the Democratic convention of Chicago in 1968. Sorkin will admit it later, facing Spielberg, he is totally bluffing: he declares to have always dreamed of writing a screenplay on the trial in question, when in reality he has no idea what it is, and calls his father on leaving the meeting to be briefed on the case. While committed democrat, and sometimes idealistic, he was only 8 years old at the time of the said trial.
So here we are in 2007 with a title, a vague idea of a pitch (like Sorkin, many of us had to shamefully go to Wikipedia), and above all the most exciting creative association that we can dream of at that moment: the virtuoso eloquence of Sorkin’s dialogues and the political and dark acuity with which Spielberg’s cinema began to adorn itself – he just, in the same year 2005, war of the Worlds and Munich. Suffice to say that the excitometers are at their maximum. But the writers’ strike that hit the Hollywood industry interrupts the project, and when it ends, each of them left for other countries, yet another Indiana Jones for one, The Social Network for the other. Bad timing.
And yet, in the wake of the 2016 election and the ensuing cultural and political uproar, Spielberg feels the urge to unearth this story of young Americans ready to stand up for their ideals at all costs. He was far from imagining how the riots of summer 2020 were going to dialogue with the Chicago Seven… In the meantime, Sorkin has moved on to directing (the Great Game with Jessica Chastain, in 2017), it is therefore he who will ultimately make the film. And we must admit that it suits him very well. After being revealed in 1992 with the screenplay of Men of honor by Rob Reiner, it returns to the trial film. And we know how much speech, its theatricality, exegesis, “Music of intelligence” as he calls it, and the endless pleasure of verbal jousting are the raw material that Sorkin has always made his trademark and the almost exclusive breeding ground for his work.
Seventies wigs a bit exaggerated
But the film does not content itself with exploiting the only material already very rich in the trial itself: it is woven around three axes, twirling at a tense rhythm between the courtroom, the flashbacks that hardly reconstitute little by little the events in question, the anger which rises during the demonstrations, and finally the life of the accused outside the trial, their relations, in particular between two of them. The mistrust crossed by mutual admiration which is difficult to say between the political, wise and posed Tom Hayden (future senator and… husband of Jane Fonda in the 80s) and the incorrigible buffoon Abbie Hoffman, sort of Andy Kaufman of activism (follower of disguises and hoaxes of all kinds), emotionally underlies the film, which would otherwise be a whirlwind, but cerebral, debate on American democracy. At the heart of an impeccable cast, and despite sometimes a slight problem with a bit exaggerated seventies wigs, the confrontation between Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen in these two roles, the polished dryness of the first against the melancholy fantasy of the second, works wonders.
It is moreover from their dialectic that the light of the film springs, signing the work of this Sorkinian seal recognizable among a thousand: a grammatical nuance pointed out by one to defend the other, the difference between a possessive pronoun and a epithet, which will of course have no value in the face of the judge (with a crass partiality, it has been won over to Nixon’s cause from the start), but which both will share like a secret that connects them: the truth of history is also a matter of grammar.
So let’s happily let Sorkin take over our weekend: the Chicago Seven on Netflix, HBO aired a special episode of To the White House shot especially to encourage the vote, and whose trailer has made fans wipe away a few tears in recent weeks: three musical notes, reunion with some beloved oddballs, quite whitewashed but still so enamored of rhetoric and Constitution. Language as a weapon, as an art, until exhaustion (the final scene of Chicago Sept recalls the last minutes of Mr Smith in the Senate): it is on this kind of wonder that the still alive ideals of Aaron Sorkin come to restore luster to the American political debate. This time the timing is right.