Peter Bart Puts Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Chicago 7’ On Trial & Contrasts It With Last Yippie Film, Haskell Wexler’s ‘Medium Cool’

Aaron Sorkin tends to build movies around disturbing ideas rather than empathetic protagonists, thus revisiting tense courtrooms and raucous newsrooms. The price: Sometimes the characters get buried by the rhetoric.

His new movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, opens this week at a propitious time when “serious” cinephiles are complaining about the absence of ‘serious’ films.

Sorkin’s provocative film will likely satisfy that appetite: Chicago 7 offers an unrelenting glimpse of 1960s turmoil, its yippies, revolutionaries and random exhibitionists, all of it steeped in contemporary subtext. The government heavies are Trumpian. The debates focus on the tactics and morality of protest.

Sorkin likes his actors to vent, and his cast is well suited for that exercise, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance and Joseph Gordon-Levitt among them. The film’s release strategy itself is a unique exercise: Paramount shepherds the three weeks in theaters, leading to a Netflix unveiling starting October 16.

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Chicago 7 may thus stir pre-election debate in varied quarters, even if prospective voters may find its subplot distracting. That’s because the movie reminds us of the Democratic Party’s epic clumsiness in mounting an effective campaign against Richard Nixon.

Ironically, the first movie dealing with the 1969 Chicago trial, titled Medium Cool, so outraged powerful Democrats that party leaders effectively scuttled the film’s distribution (more on that later).

But the two movies are a study in contrast. Medium Cool, shot in 1968, focused on a photojournalist who became enmeshed in a passionate love story, its fate caught up in the political frenzy of the moment. Chicago 7, a generation later, instead is preoccupied with political issues and legal outrages rather than personal stories.

Medium Cool, directed by Haskell Wexler, a Chicago-born cinematographer, reflected the color and disarray of the ’60s — the sex, drugs and, most of all, the anger stirred by Vietnam and the draft. Against this canvas, the cast of stoned poets, crazed yippies and disoriented revolutionaries seems occasionally comical and even marginally empathetic.

In Chicago 7 there are random references to ‘60s assassinations (Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and to draft quotas, and even the rise of Black power, but they seem almost abstract. Still, Sorkin knows how to write strong performances and audiences will relish the counter-culture natterings of Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman) and Jeremy Strong (as Jerry Rubin) as they argue about the errant strategies of ‘60s protest. Or the pleading reminders from Redmayne (as Tom Hayden) about his passion to stay out of jail. To Hayden, the overriding battle was about Vietnam, not the Chicago police force.

Had Chicago, led by Mayor Richard Daley, accommodated the protesters and granted them permits, and had Democratic leaders come together on a strong candidate, the famous trial might never have happened. Instead, the disarrayed convention produced the bland candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, ultimately delivering the country to Nixon. Today’s audience may be discomfited by predictable parallels to the present.

But here’s where the fate of the two movies diverged: Democratic leaders were determined not to allow Medium Cool to darken the image of their party. The chairman of the party’s finance committee was an influential member of the Paramount board of directors. Then, as now, Paramount Pictures had come up with the initial funding for the movie., but there were suspicions: Was there an anti-Democrat plot at the studio that may have prompted release of this “dangerous” picture?

Wexler, it was known, hated Daley and hoped the party would nominate a candidate far to the left of Humphrey. The film had gotten its greenlight from Robert Evans, who was famously apolitical, and from me — I had been the former New York Times reporter who had written extensively about the political rise of Ronald Reagan and who had become close to him. Was there a bias?

Two days before its release date, the entire ad and promotion budget for Medium Cool suddenly disappeared. So did most of the theater bookings. Reviews were strong, bit the box office numbers were weak.

To be sure, Chicago 7 is eliciting far more resolute support from the studio and from Netflix. The timing of its release should stimulate media attention, and so should its stalwart cast.

And now, more than ever, protest is a towering topic in a political climate that is more contentious than ever.

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