The Trial of the Chicago 7
Recreating a still-relevant chapter of US history, Aaron Sorkin's latest film pairs the writer/director's usual flourishes with a top-notch cast.
October 01, 2020
UPDATE, Monday, March 1, 2021: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream via Netflix.
If you were to start watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 without knowing who made it, it wouldn't take long to realise that it's an Aaron Sorkin film. The playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker's career has relied heavily upon the power of words — and so championing their power, especially in rousing speeches that sway emotions and heated conversations that ping clever opinions back and forth in rapid succession, sits at the heart of his work. It's there in his steely Academy Award-winning script for The Social Network, and in the baseball banter of Moneyball. It's evident in his three TV shows about TV shows, aka the entertaining Sports Night, the underrated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the overblown The Newsroom, too. And, it was apparent in the explosive courtroom theatrics of A Few Good Men and the frequent political walk-and-talks of The West Wing, both of which are clear precursors to his latest film.
Combine A Few Good Men's setting with The West Wing's faith in democratic ideals, and that's where The Trial of the Chicago 7 lands. Thankfully, while Sorkin's work can veer from exceptional to frustrating, his second stint as a director (after 2017's Molly's Game) makes the very most of his usual traits. Given the true tale he's telling — a story of vocal dissent against unpopular government actions and latter's retaliation, spanning protests and violence on the streets involving both activists and police — that's hardly surprising. That Sorkin has amassed a typically top-notch cast to sling his words helps considerably, including Bridge of Spies Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, The Theory of Everything Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne and Watchmen Emmy-winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, plus everyone from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton to Sacha Baron Cohen and Succession's Jeremy Strong.
In the summer of 1968, as the Democratic Party assembled in Chicago for its national convention to confirm the party's nominee for the presidential election, several activist groups decided to make their displeasure known. There was much to rally against: the Vietnam War was raging and American soldiers were dying, both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy had been assassinated in separate incidents months earlier, and civil unrest was mounting across the country. The Trial of the Chicago 7 first introduces six figures making plans for the day, then cuts to the commencement of legal proceedings for eight defendants, all charged by the US federal government the next year. By then, Richard Nixon is president and, as the scene that tasks Assistant US Attorney Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) with going after a supposed all-star group makes plain, his administration was intent on prosecuting their opposition to make a statement. The government was also adamant that the police couldn't have started the riots that arose outside of the convention.
If you've noticed that the numbers in the above paragraph don't add up, so has The Trial of the Chicago 7. When the court proceedings open, eight defendants do indeed sit before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has clearly already made up his mind about their guilt from the second the trial begins. These men have been grouped together, but they're hardly a group. The clean-cut Tom Hayden (Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) hail from the Students for a Democratic Society, and believe in working within the system to change it, while long-haired radicals Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong) are members of the counterculture Youth International Party, the Yippies, who favour more revolutionary tactics. Boy Scout troop leader Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is an avowed pacifist, and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) don't even know why they're there. Then there's Black Panther Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II), who hadn't met any of the others, was only in Chicago for mere hours on one day to give a speech, and ends up being literally bound and gagged by the court during the trial.
Based on all of the above — and despite the best efforts of defence attorneys William Kunstler (Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) as the months roll by — this was never going to be a straightforward legal matter. It's also catnip for Sorkin, who unleashes his trademark flourishes on not only passionate speeches, but also infuriating courtroom incidents and the festering disagreement between codefendants, as well as in recreating the fateful protests. There's nothing unexpected about the way the filmmaker handles this story visually, narratively or thematically, but the end result proves a case of applying the right approach to the right tale. Everything about this chapter of history should resonate with importance and, given the blatant parallels to America today, still feel urgent and angry; however, Sorkin's showy, snappy knack for deploying potent words to distill crucial and complicated matters, and to stress the need to speak truth to power, constantly shines through.
Among The Trial of the Chicago 7's sizeable cast, there are no weak links, especially when it comes to talking all that talk. But just try to tear your eyes away from Abdul-Mateen II's rightfully furious Seale, or from Kelvin Harrison Jr (Waves, The High Note) in a supporting role as fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton — or, in what amounts to far more than a stoner comedy double-act, to the witty and loose yet weighty and film-stealing work of Baron Cohen and Strong. Indeed, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is at its most compelling when it dissects the vastly different perspectives motivating its central figures, which is what arises in these performances. The film is gripping anyway, even as it plays out exactly as anyone could predict, whether you're familiar with the real-life facts or not. But perhaps most essential is how it doesn't merely wrap up a pivotal case in pithy words, timely comparisons and relatable ire, but in astute and affecting detail.
Top image: Niko Tavernise/Netflix © 2020