The Trial of the Chicago 7 shreds the myth of the impartial judge
Aaron Sorkin's latest is searingly relevant — but not for the reason it was a few weeks ago
The Trial of the Chicago 7 might very well be the luckiest film of the year. Steven Spielberg's production company, Amblin, had been trying to get the ball rolling on the movie for more than a decade, only for it to secure funding and finish shooting just before the pandemic shut down Hollywood this past spring. And then there's its subject matter: "The movie was relevant when we were making it," writer and director Aaron Sorkin told Vanity Fair. "We didn't need it to get more relevant, but it did."
Sure, some of it was manufactured: Paramount sold the film to Netflix "during the pandemic, the better to release it in time for the presidential election," Indiewire reports. But then the George Floyd protests over the summer added a renewed sense of urgency to the real-life courtroom drama, about a disparate group of activists who were charged by the government with conspiracy and inciting a riot in the aftermath of antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Perhaps even more serendipitously, though, the film was set for an Oct. 16 release on Netflix — well before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meaning no one could have foreseen the movie would come out at the end of the very week of the nomination hearings for her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett. Because as much as The Trial of the Chicago 7 plopped (unintentionally!) into the middle of our national conversation about the proper way to dissent, it coincidentally ended up also shredding the myth of the impartial judge right when America needed it the most.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin at his Sorkiniest, with the writer of The West Wing and The Social Network finding his footing in the familiar setting of a courthouse. The movie is framed around the conflict of the young lead prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who sees the men he's been appointed to indict as being "vulgar" and "anti-establishment," but not necessarily lawbreakers, much less friendly enough with each other to have conspired to start a riot. In the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 walks through the events that led up to the protesters' violent confrontation with the police at the Chicago convention, with Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a clever bit of casting) and student activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) representing the dueling radical leftist and moderate Democratic split still being rehashed today. Ultimately, though, it circles back to the cracks in Schultz's faith in the judicial system, which are widened in the court of the openly racist, cruel, and biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
Enshrined in the Code of Conduct for United States Judges is the mandate to "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." Even today, it is one of the great American stories we tell ourselves: "Judges should be impartial. Everyone agrees on that," one professor of law stated as fact in a New York Times roundtable in 2013. The senators at President Trump's impeachment trial earlier this year, meanwhile, took a vow of "impartial justice," despite many almost certainly not meaning it. And Barrett, in accepting the nomination for Supreme Court, assured that she would "faithfully and impartially discharge my duties." The Atlantic has even claimed that "since Trump took office, he has constantly been challenging, and slowly chipping away at, the norm of impartial justice," as if this is something new.
But justice has never been truly impartial, of course. Judges aren't computers, able to make decisions based on factual inputs alone. What's more, we can prove their bias, and the imbalance of the system as a whole. Seventy-three percent of federal judges are men, and more than 80 percent are white, but studies have nevertheless found that "white federal judges are about four times more likely to dismiss race discrimination cases outright" and are "half as likely as black federal judges to rule in favor of people alleging racial harassment in the workplace," The Washington Post reports. Judge Hoffman is the true-to-life worst case scenario, enabled by the unquestioning trust in the system.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, then, illustrates the danger in naively accepting the claim that judges are inherently fair arbiters of justice: the film's most upsetting scene, after all, isn't police clubbing protesters, but Hoffman's order to have Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale bound and gagged in an American courtroom. Hayden, the clean-cut student activist who admits some part of his protest might be about getting back at his father, respects the authority of the justice system at the film's beginning; his character arc is shaped by encountering the failures of the institution. Schultz's arc, too, finds him disillusioned by the courtroom, apparently moved by the activists, who are increasingly the target of Judge Hoffman's blatant antagonism. "If we're guilty, why not give us a trial?" the defendants' most mild-mannered member breaks down during the film's climax.
Sorkin sends the impartial judge myth up in smoke over the film's two-hour-ten-minute runtime. And while The Trial of Chicago 7 got lucky with its release date, the film's relevance is owed to the endurance of the belief it's trying to tear down. It reminds us that, as a Supreme Court candidate balks at answering simple and important questions about her views, we need to admit her "impartiality" isn't a given, and it warns against what so many of us are doing now: blindly believing that government institutions, and the people serving in them, are here to protect you.