A film review by Craig J. Koban October 29, 2020



2020, R, 129 mins.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale  /  Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman  /  Danny Flaherty as John Froines  /  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz  /  Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark  /  Frank Langella as Julius Hoffman  /  John Carroll Lynch as John Dellinger  /  Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden  /  Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner  /  Mark Rylance as William Kunstler  /  Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis  /  Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin  /  J.C. MacKenzie as Thomas Foran

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin


Aaron Sorkin's new fact-based historical courtroom drama THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (now playing on Netflix) contains the finest acting ensemble of the year and features an absolute embarrassment of performances riches.   Plus, Sorkin's scripting and dialogue - in true characteristic fashion - is as razor sharp and focused as it has ever been.  

As you probably guessed from its title, the film deals with a group of Vietnam War protesters from various walks of life (dubbed the Chicago 7) that were charged and subsequently tried for conspiracy and crossing state lines with an accused intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.  Even though THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 delves into America of yesterday, it manages to resonate with a remarkable level of relevance and timeliness today, especially during a socially and politically trying period of mass protest in the United States.   

Obviously, there have been ample documentaries about the events surrounding the controversial trial in question, which further reflected the utter futility of the defendants while facing a stubbornly backwards minded judge that never once seemed interested in given them a fair judicial chance.  Of course, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 highlights all of the road blocks that these men faced while trying to defend themselves from certain jail time, but it also becomes a surprisingly gripping commentary piece on the whole nature of American constitutional rights to peacefully protest in deeply polarizing times (something that, as already mentioned, rings so powerfully to today's audiences).  Beyond that, the film and trial also reiterates the damning abuses of civic and political power that existed in the 60s, which conspired together to create a powder keg of a chaotic climate.  Sorkin, if anything, deserves supreme props for the sheer ambitiousness of his scripting here, which has the difficult task of making a well established and covered historical trial feel somehow fresh to modern eyes and from a different creative lens.  The more his story systematically unfolds the more one gains the impression that THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 isn't just a courtroom procedural, but it's also about fleshing out all of the personalities on both sides of the prosecution and defense while framing this case within the larger framework of injustice and subverting basic civil rights. 

There are a lot of characters, expositional particulars, and established relationships here to wade through that all have to be introduced and explored, but in Sorkin's masterfully economical hands he manages to make everything make cogent sense within a few scant minutes as the film opens without it coming off like a dry historical lecture.  He does so with a very niftily assembled and edited montage of archival footage that very quickly immerses us within the tumultuous decade in question, covering then President Lyndon B. Johnson expanding the Vietnam draft to very high monthly quotas, which then segues into televised draft lotteries, the defiant burning of draft cards, and eventually to the murders of both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.  All of this culminates to forging a nation of deep unease, which unavoidably convened on activists from multiple groups planning to meet and protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  What began as peaceful anti-Vietnam protests blew up into full scale and violent riots in Lincoln Park, which had the unarmed and defenseless protestors going toe-to-toe with the much better protected and armed police.   



One year later and with the election of Richard Nixon as president, new Attorney General in John Mitchell decides to go after and prosecute what he considered the conspiratorial masterminds and planners of the riots, mostly to set a stern example to others as to what would happen if similar protests went through moving forward.   Tasked with prosecuting is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's handpicked because of his no-nonsense demeanor of finding ways to win big cases.   The defendants in question are a motley crew of contrasting personalities: There's the popular and audaciously outspoken hippie leader Abbie Hoffman (a pitch perfectly cast and never been better Sacha Baron Cohen), whose right hand man in his cause is the equally authority defying Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong).  Then there's the more restrained and pragmatic activist Tom Hayden (a refreshingly low key and effective Eddie Redmayne) and his colleague Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp).  Rounding up the defendants is the much older and pacifistic David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a couple of relative and unassuming unknowns in Lee Weiner and John Frounes (Noah Robbins and Danny Flaherty respectively) and, last but not least, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who's the most fed up and militaristic of the bunch.  They're defended by the world weary, but experienced William Kunstler (the always refined and quietly commanding Mark Rylance) who realizes very early on that he has his work cut out for him on multiple levels. 

The odds were stacked well on top of the desperate shoulders of the defense right from the beginning, which started with a larger government push to use all of their collective powers to punish these protesters that most likely never once conspired together, nor even thought of conspiring together.  Worst of all was the very presence of the judge overseeing what would become a 150 day case, Julius Hoffman (a brilliantly curmudgeonly Frank Langella), who not only forcibly voices his distaste of the defendants and their cause, but also seems to be a clueless and absent minded old man that doesn't ever seem mentally fit to serve as a judge.  Beyond his obvious senility, Judge Hoffman rarely hides his own prejudices, taking an acute dislike to Seale.  What then transpires in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is an intoxicating back and forth of multiple testimonies, multiple flashbacks to the events in question that led to the trial, and much of the juicy backstage politics and nagging problems that plagued the defense at every turn.  Sorkin is not a particularly strong cinematic visualist as far as directors go, and he doesn't need to be here.  He lets his words and fine editing contained within this material do all of the heavy lifting in terms of telling a large and sweeping tale of corruption of power and the heinous miscarriage of justice that was this trial. 

And, again, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a showcase of Sorkin's unparalleled skills with rapid fire dialogue and the wonderful assortment of colorful characters that speak his words that are the main selling features of this film.  Sorkin has always been a writer that gives his dialogue exchanges such a unique flavor and texture (see his scripts for THE SOCIAL NETWORK or STEVE JOBS or his terribly underrated directorial debut in MOLLY'S GAME), and the fiery and passionate exchanges between all of the players present emerges as a verbal ballet of words that's proverbial music to the ears (it's showy and theatrical, yes, but so much more enthralling than the usual cookie cutter and cliché riddled scripting that befalls so many legal dramas).  Plus, Sorkin has a field day at making the richly delineated personalities that permeated this case so compellingly, specifically Abbie, who has a prankster-like affability that sometimes hides what a cunning and intelligent ringmaster that he really is.  Cohen is not only a physical dead ringer for the real Hoffman, but he meticulously captures his throw caution to the wind charisma and his insatiable appetite for fighting for what's right, even if it means alienating those in power and gaining prison time.   

Of course, all of the cast gathered here are uniformly superb, like Redmayne's soft spokenly passionate turn as Hayden (how nice is it to see the British actor not fumble and mumble his way through a frustratingly idiosyncratic performance that he's been known to give previously?).  Rylance is in his wheelhouse as defense attorney Kunstler; he plays him as a leader with unflappable gumption that also has his patience tested frequently to mind numbing levels.  Mateen II's impassionate portrayal of his terribly mistreated Black Panther defendant gives this film its heart and soul.  This is tied to Judge Hoffman himself, who's brilliantly played by the wily old veteran in Langella as both a deplorably ineffectual man of the law as well as a old school racist that simply has no idea how he comes across to the increasingly shocked defense team.  There's a scandalous moment in the film ripped from history that shows the judge making the cardinal blunder of having the ferociously candid Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom as punishment for his multiple charges of contempt of the court.  What an unspeakable and inhumane blunder. 

I forgot to mention Gordon-Levitt's stalwart work as the prosecutor, and Sorkin wisely never frames this man as a contemptuous villain of the piece in the same manner that Judge Hoffman easily comes off as.  Instead, the script shows him rather intriguingly as a principled man dedicated to his craft and job that was, well, simply doing a job, even though he was constantly dismayed by what a mockery the whole court case became.  This reaches a head with the appearance of former Attorney General Ramsey Clarke (a flawlessly stoic Michael Keaton), who has damning testimony for the prosecution in terms of revealing that there simply was no conspiracy formed by all of the defendants, but in a ridiculously illogical decision Judge Hoffman decides that it isn't worth the jury's time to hear this vital piece of evidence.  The unfortunate fate of the Chicago 7 was settled arguably before the trial even started.  Five of the seven were wrongfully convicted of inciting the riots, and all of them were sentenced to lengthy time because of multiple contempt of court charges.  Thankfully and rightfully, the convictions were overturned on November 21, 1972 by appeals court, sighting the judge's unfit biases.  In a fitting move, the Justice Department opted not to retry the case.   

Much like BLACKkKLANSMAN a few years back, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 uses history to give audience members a viewfinder into past injustices that ring with such unsettling reverberations in contemporary politics and culture.  In many ways, the world has fundamentally changed, to be sure, but many things remain depressingly the same, like how protest movements in the U.S. are fighting the good fight of toxic corruption of law enforcement power and whose journey has been paved with violence and bloodshed.  Some sequences in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 have some eerie parallels today (like one involving police riot officers removing incriminating badges and ID tags off of their uniforms before bashing the convention protesters black and blue).  I guess that one could say that Sorkin perhaps lacks nuance and subtlety in making these comparisons between the past and present, but THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 shouldn't be confused with being a documentary about the events in question, but rather a dramatization about them.  As far as accounts go of the savage Lincoln Park war riots and the subsequent trial that followed it, Sorkin's film is pretty uncomplicated and follows a preordained genre path.  Yet, his thematic aims are grander and more far reaching as far as these types of pictures go, and his crackerjack A-list cast as well as his penchant for penning well rounded characters that command our interest is what makes THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 one of Netflix's best and most compulsively watchable offerings of the year.

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