THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
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 ForanWritten 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.
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
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
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