The Trial of the Chicago 7: Aaron Sorkin wants to Remind us he Makes “Important” Movies Too

The Chicago 7 boys, deciding which one of them gets to submit themselves for lead actor at the Oscars

I think I’ve finally made up my mind on where I stand with Aaron Sorkin. He’s often known as someone you’re either all-in on or completely out on; either you love him or hate him (“We don’t need two metaphors; that’s bad writing. Not that it matters.”). I think, at this point, I have to say I fall in the middle, but maybe it’s not that simple. After watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that I think I like Sorkin the most, when he’s dealing with lower stakes.

I’ve never been into The West Wing or The American President because the subject matter is already so grandiose and weighty, that when Aaron Sorkin comes along and pumps it up even further, it can be a little too much to handle. But when he’s dealing with the front office of a struggling baseball team (Moneyball), the rise of Apple computers (Steve Jobs), or the world of underground, celebrity poker (Molly’s Game), he’s able to raise these much lower stakes into feeling like the weight of the world rests upon them and turns what should be a snooze-fest into an absolute thrill ride. I mean, he took the dull, legal depositions surrounding the founding of Facebook and turned it into a Shakespearean duel of the minds. The man knows how to make you think the story he’s telling is the most important story in the world.

So, when he takes subject matter that truly does matter, like Chicago 7, I almost get a little bit of a headache when the subjects, who actually have weighty implications behind their actions, get the Sorkin treatment and are elevated to an even higher level of duty. It all just becomes so grand. It’s like in PacMan when you go so far in one direction, you end up all the way back on the other end of the screen; sometimes Sorkin can compound his more important material so much with his own pompous writing style, that it all becomes too much and leaves the audience feeling like it’s a bit cheesy. Having said that, this movie is good. It’s real good. It’s just pretty clear that Sorkin should stick to writing.

I know that’s a pretty hacky take: keep the writer in the writer’s room and out of the director’s chair. But it should be considered. Had Sorkin started directing earlier in his career, then fine, let him have at it, because he’d be better at it at this point but since he’s only begun directing with his last two movies, what we end up with is a guy who is much more talented on the page than he is in the chair. The film is a little static and visually dull. It’s a lot of pointing the camera at one person at a time and letting them speak and while that isn’t the biggest deal in the world, it’s just clear that he has no signature style. Folks like Bennet Miller, David Fincher and Danny Boyle have been able to take his scripts and spin them into some visually creative works of art, but Sorkin himself just isn’t there yet. I imagine he’ll get there one day but I’d rather he hand off his screenplays to folks with more experience than keep taking at-bats for himself. Now we’ll never know what Edgar Wright’s version of Molly’s Game looks like or Spielberg’s Chicago 7.

JGL is back from his Hollywood hiatus with series of thankless roles in Netflix movies

Chicago 7 is one of Sorkin’s hokiest movies yet. I imagine the original drafts of all his screenplays have the same amount of cheese, but with oversight from experienced directors, they’re able to work with him to cut out some of the more naively-optimistic moments he’s so fond of. It’s really a classic Judd Apatow-esque case of “the writer-director is too in love with their own work to change any of it,” and seeing as Netflix is famous for giving so few notes to big name talents, as they don’t want to ruffle any feathers because they’re just happy to have them aboard, there just doesn’t seem to be anyone in the room to tell him that what he’s shooting is a little cheesy.

But again, I like this movie! I can’t believe I like this movie! It has Eddie Redmayne and I really don’t get what he’s all about and yet, he works really well. I went from rolling my eyes the first time he showed up to saying “fuck yeah, Eddie Redmayne” by the time the credits rolled. I’m shocked by that. Truly shocked. I also find Sacha Baron Cohen pretty hit and miss in more dramatic work, but dammit, he fucking works in this movie. He works really well. And I’m always down for John Carroll Lynch to get work, even if he does somewhat get the short end of the stick here.

It’s also an extremely lukewarm take to say Michael Keaton is great, but Michael Keaton is great, and I’m always so glad to see someone take Sorkin’s dialogue and play it understated. That’s an actor with vision and restraint right there; while everyone else wants those juicy Sorkin monologues to launch them onto the stage at the Oscars, Keaton went in the opposite direction, so much so he almost gives off the sense that he didn’t want to be there. You da man, Keaton.

I get why Sorkin wanted to make this movie: it’s a chance to get back into the courtroom where he can write those back-and-forths that snap like pop rocks in your mouth and he can do that while drawing attention to an important cause. I’m all for that. But, now that he’s gone and made his importantissue-driven film, I urge him to please, please go back to writing stories that don’t necessarily matter as much in the grand scheme of things but feel like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders when he’s putting their story to paper.

Is This New Trash or was Trash Always Like This?

Just two fellas on the prowl for a niiiiiiice paycheck.

Last month saw the release of the Netflix original film Project Power, which has been marketed to the masses as the big budget popcorn movie we all would have otherwise flocked to theaters to see but were treated to the convenience of having at home. I’m sure, after watching, the masses all had a somewhat similar reaction, ranging from “huh… that wasn’t very good,” all the way to “huh… that was pretty good.” You know, the full spectrum of passionate reactions. More so than anything, a movie like Project Power leaves general audiences confused: why was something that I was told was gonna be massively cool so plainly bland? It’s a pretty standard marketing ploy: put a new spice on the slop and the piggies will eat it up… but it’s still the same slop.

This is nothing particularly against Project Power. I would place myself on the “huh… that wasn’t very good” end of the spectrum but it’s far from an offensive assault on the brain. It’s a mediocre superhero/action movie that probably would have been theatrically released in February or March or even August (if the studio execs were feeling particularly saucy about it) in any given year and turned an okay profit (with a random, tiny batch of passionate fans that beg for a sequel that the actors tease might happen over the course of the next six years and eventually comes out and no one gives a shit – whaddup, Pacific Rim?).

But Netflix wants you to believe you’ve never seen something like this before, or at least not in a long time. Not just in the sense that it’s an original film and isn’t based on any preestablished IP but even further in the sense of legit movie stars like Jamie Foxx and JGL (I will not call him anything else) getting to play around in a pulpy action thriller that the whole family can enjoy. They want you to be reminded of movies like Mr. & Mrs. SmithSmokin’ Aces or any of the mid-2000’s Will Smith action movies like HancockI, Robot or I Am Legend, movies where big-time movie stars got to run around and have fun in a relatively breezy action movie that didn’t make you think too hard. It harkens back to a subgenre that got eaten alive by comic book franchises and YA adaptations in the late aughts. 

2004 Will Smith has no idea that people won’t be interested in his movies in like four years. If only we could go back and warn him.

So, while it might seem like a smart move to make something that harkens back to those mid-2000’s summer blockbusters with a flair of superhero antics to keep it with the current times, to me, it seems like a fraught cause. Those 2000’s action movies got eaten alive for a reason: they fucking sucked. Much like Project Power, none of those five movies I mentioned above are good or memorable in any way. Say what you will about Marvel movies or The Hunger Games, but I’d watch any of those over a 2000’s-era action movie like Shooter. A Marvel movie may seem generic to us now, since we have so many, but those movies are carefully crafted and made with someone in mind and the same goes for something like The Hunger Games. You can make something for a mass audience while still maintaining some level of audience specificity. Movies like Project Power are destined to fail because they’re for everybody. And when you make something for everybody, you end up making something for nobody. It’s like putting out a bowl of M&Ms at a party: no one is gonna get mad about it but no one’s gonna get excited about it either… it’s just a safe choice that will go relatively unnoticed.

I suppose it doesn’t matter. Netflix isn’t in the business of quality. Yes, they like to woo auteurs like Scorsese and Kaufman over by telling them they can have a budget to do whatever they want for any sort of prestige project they’re interested in but outside of that, they’re mostly interested in making half-decent trash that passes the time on a lazy evening. Sometimes you end up with something rad like Extraction but more often than not, you end up with Project Power or Bird Box. It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to have an attractive thumbnail image on the screen that a family of five can all shrug their shoulders at and say “yeah, I guess I’d watch that.”

Passive consensus, that’s where Netflix thrives. They have the unique ability to give us the tasty, mid-budget dramas we’ve been craving the return of for the last ten years, and thought they were going to provide, but instead, have elected to serve up the action trash we threw away 12 years ago but this time a little more colorful but overall less fulfilling.