Trial of the Chicago 7, The (U.S.A./U.K., 2020)October 15, 2020
The events depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7 occurred in 1968-69. Aaron Sorkin began working on the screenplay in 2007. But, oh how relevant the story chronicled in this movie feels today... What is it that George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is Sorkin’s reminder at a time when it is sorely needed. Whether it is heeded is another matter altogether.
There’s nothing allegorical about The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s a straightforward chronology of the events surrounding and after the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The anti-Vietnam War riots in Lincoln Park pitted unarmed protestors against heavily protected police. Early the following year, Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell, decided to go after eight “ringleaders” to set an example. The charges were conspiracy and inciting to riot. The movie covers highlights of the five-month trial while occasionally flashing back to present key events from the protests (both before and after they turned violent).
That main storyline is constructed as a courtroom procedural. On trial are eight defendants of varying note and notoriety. There’s the flamboyant Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who accepts contempt of court citations like extra credit assignments. He is joined by his perpetually-stoned fellow Yippie, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and the thoughtful, temperate Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). Also along for the ride are the nerdy Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and the fatherly pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has gotten pulled into the trial despite not being involved in the riots. And there are two nobodies, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), who don’t know why they’re there. All of the men (except Seale) are represented by the legendary lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). The prosecutor, hand-picked by Mitchell, is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a straight-arrow sort who even Hoffman describes as “good man.” The judge is Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a senile bigot who goes out of his way to make sure the court understands he’s not related to Abbie – a point that gives the latter ammunition for jokes at the former’s expense (which earns him one of many contempt citations).
In his screenplay, Sorkin does a masterful job of picking through months of testimony to find significant exchanges that speak a universal language about the corruption of power and the desire to silence opposition voices. Creative editing and well-placed flashbacks enable the story to maintain its momentum while filling in the background details. Stylistically, there’s nothing flashy about the approach – Sorkin the director allows Sorkin the screenwriter to do his job with an able assist from an accomplished and effective cast.
There isn’t a bad performance in The Trial of the Chicago Seven, but two actors stand out in part because of the flamboyance and forcefulness of their portrayals. Although this isn’t the first time Sacha Baron Cohen has played a part straight, he is better known for his off-the-wall, clownish roles (like Borat). His interpretation of Abbie Hoffman is spot-on – the resemblance is uncanny both in terms of his physical appearance and his attitude. Equally arresting is Michael Keaton (playing former Attorney General Ramsey Clark). Despite appearing in only two scenes, Keaton commands the viewer’s attention with his energy and force of personality. Singling out Cohen and Keaton doesn’t diminish the impact of many of the other participants, including Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (among others); the overall impact is tied directly into the effectiveness of the entire ensemble cast.
When it comes to courtroom dramas and Sorkin, one might connect The Trial of the Chicago 7 with 1992’s A Few Good Men. The films are much different in intent, however, with the former being a drama while the latter contains significant thriller elements. The screenplay is probably closer to Charlie Wilson’s War and Molly’s Game in approach (if not specifics). (Sorkin also directed Molly’s Game – his directorial debut – so a degree of synergy might be expected.) Although The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a serious message, it finds room for moments of (dark) comedy and (gallows) humor. The tone is never jokey but certain elements, like Judge Hoffman’s assertions that he isn’t related to one of the defendants, verge on the absurd. While some aspects of the story have been manicured, that one has been established as part of the written historical record. It’s one of the details that makes the movie both important in what it’s saying about freedom and democracy and enjoyable in its presentation of those themes.
Trial of the Chicago 7, The (U.S.A./U.K., 2020)
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Alex Sharp, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, Ben Shenkman, J.C. MacKenzie
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Daniel Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: Netflix