The Trial of the Chicago 7

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Photo: Nico Tavernise/Netflix


The Trial of the Chicago 7




4/5 Stars


After anti-Vietnam-war protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 go badly wrong, seven leaders of the different protest groups are charged with conspiracy to incite violence. Who and what really turned peaceful protests into a violent riot and are these charges just an excuse to lock up some of the most popular anti-establishment figures of the time? As their much-publicised court case stretches out over months, it becomes increasingly clear that it's more than just their freedom that's on trial. Based on the true story.


There's something serendipitous about writer/ director Aaron Sorkin's latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, hitting Netflix the same week that a reunion special of his signature work, The West Wing, dropped on HBO MAX in support of the "When We All Vote" initiative.

First released more than 20 years ago, The West Wing was Sorkin's political fantasy that basically boiled down to the simplest of premises: What if the US government was run by only the smartest and most engaged people in the country? Now, in 2020, the classic show has never looked more fanciful and is, depending on your point of view, either a comforting reminder of what politics can look like or a bitter reminder of just how far US politics has fallen - at least from a liberal point of view.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, on the surface, quite a different beast compared to The West Wing. It's a self-contained two-hour film. It's a courtroom drama rather than a political workplace drama. It's based on a fairly well-known and well-documented true story. And yet, how you view The West Wing right now is a pretty good reflection of what you might think of Sorkin's very particular dramatisation of this true story.

Sorkin does fudge the facts of the story a bit in his retelling of a pivotal moment in the counter-cultural revolution, but the film still has all the usual Sorkinisms that can be traced, not just back to The West Wing, but to Sports Night and the American President. It has the same moralising, quick-talking, super-intelligent, uber-witty characters that Sorkin is known for - and the fact that they happen to be based on real people is a huge bonus.

As Joshua Furst's article for Forward points out, Sorkin is a nice centre-left liberal who has always been less interested in blowing up the system than in getting the right people to reform the system. That is the modus operandi behind everything, from The West Wing to The Newsroom, and it's absolutely the guiding principle here. That revolutionaries like Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden would probably find more to relate to in harder-edged Sorkin films like The Social Network and Charlie Wilson's War than in the soft liberalism of their cuddly portrayals here.

Does any of this make the film less worth watching, though? Well, yes, if you're not an Aaron Sorkin fan. This is probably the least likely of his recent films to convert you. Certainly, if you're the sort of person who thinks that Bernie Sanders is too far to the right, this film will probably drive you to drink. If, however, you're a fan of Sorkin, especially when he's firing on all cylinders, then The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an absolute must see. Just know that it's Sorkin's very particular view of these true events – there's a much more objective documentary out there if you're just looking for the facts.

Even if Sorkin doesn't overly emphasise the fact that the protests for which the Chicago 7 were tried were actually against a democratic nominee who they felt didn't go far enough in opposing the Vietnam War, his impassioned plea for an impartial and just justice system that treats people equally and fairly and is not ruled by partisan politics, could hardly be more timely. Certainly, the Black Lives Matter protests resonate throughout the film. First, in the way that the Nixon government in the film uses the justice system to try and beat down overwhelmingly non-violent protesters but in the way, the one black person on trial – Black Panther member Bobby Seale (played brilliantly by Watchmen's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was the unofficial eighth member of the Chicago 7 despite having almost nothing to actually do with them – is so horrifically treated by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, typically exceptional).     

Admittedly, Sorkin still isn't as impressive a director as he is a screenwriter (the film was originally a Steven Spielberg project that he brought to Sorkin to write with the intent of directing it himself) and his direction here is even less noteworthy than on his directorial debut, Molly's Game. It's interesting to imagine what someone like Spielberg or David Fincher could have done with this script. Still, for a very contained story that centres entirely around people talking (and talking and talking), it's astonishing just how compelling the film is all the way through – and how viscerally emotional it is too. It held my attention for every single minute of its 2+ hour runtime, and it made me think, it made me laugh, and it filled me with a righteous anger that caught me by surprise.

With so ludicrously great a cast list, I suppose I needn't mention that the acting is uniformly spectacular but considering it takes a certain sort of actor to handle Sorkin's idiosyncratic dialogue, it really says something that not a single one of the dozen-odd main actors let the side down for a second. They're all so good that it's hard to pick highlights, but Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman was a particularly genius stroke of casting. If an Aaron Sorkin project lives and dies by its actors (and it does), then this is one of the liveliest and more vital films of the year.


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