Despite The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s late 1960’s setting, there’s an eerie parallel to the current situation encompassing the United States that makes this dramatised true story all the more important. Ironic commentary, perhaps, but Aaron Sorkin’s penchant for witty, immersive dialogue – the scribe having written for TV’s The West Wing, as well as such films as The Social Network and Moneyball – is on full display here, relishing each moment recalling the trial of the famed protestors who disrupted the Democratic Convention in Chicago’s 1968’s summer.
Originally, eight defendants were singled out to be made examples of, facing various charges which included the act of crossing state lines to incite a riot. As passionate as these eight men were, it was actually an overzealous police force that started the riots, but wanting to prove his strength as a disciplinarian, President Richard Nixon chose to single out this handful of protestors for the sake of a trial that would essentially draw attention away from the brutal police mentality; doesn’t this all sound a bit familiar?
The “Chicago 7” consisted of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), a quiet, better governance-seeking man who was branded as the ringleader, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), anti-establishment hippies Abbie Hoffman (a glorious Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, wonderfully tapping into his character’s temperament), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a pacifist war protestor, and college activists Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), both of whom opposed the act of drafting for the war.
The eighth man was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a radical who barely involved himself in the protests that led to his arrest but joined as a sign of solidarity. It’s framed from the get-go that Seale’s arrest is racially motivated, fuelled by his affiliation with The Panthers, a revolutionary organisation that Nixon openly despised. Sorkin manages plenty of mileage out of Seale’s dumbfounding presence in the courtroom as he never receives proper counsel due to his own lawyer’s personal matters, and the result of this allows both hilarious and heartbreaking observations pertaining to the sheer lunacy of such a judge as Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, terrific but infuriating) presiding over such a case; during the film’s epilogue it states that 78% of Chicago attorneys had a negative view of him in his profession due to his deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defence.
No stranger to the chaos of the courtroom – his first major motion picture writing credit was on A Few Good Men – Sorkin allows his words to crackle throughout, with Hoffman’s various comedic outbursts, the verbal theatrics of radical lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, brilliant), and the rage-fuelled antics of Seale hitting the strongest. In fact, in spite of his ultimate limited screen time, it’s the treatment of Seale that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is at its most effective. Witnessing how far Judge Hoffman goes in order to “contain” Seale is truly terrifying – it even disheartens opposing lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – and drawing a line between his racially-charged actions and the victimisation of such figures as Breonna Taylor or George Floyd is unnerving in its simplicity.
Whilst Sorkin as a director still has areas to improve his craft, his words are truly where the film bases its confidence, and it’s hard not to think that Netflix (who have acquired the film following original distributors Paramount Pictures selling their rights due to the COVID-19 pandemic) won’t push the screenplay angle in their award season considerations. And though as an ensemble it’s difficult to single out performances, Rylance, Baron Cohen, Langella, and Abdul-Mateen appear the most likely due to their innate ability to organically encompass Sorkin’s dialogue and make it innately their own.
A terrifying film at its core thanks to its display of despicable politics within the law system, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is another 2020 necessity. Whilst most pictures we’ve branded as “the film we need right now” have been bathed in a levity that have assisted us in escaping the shit-storm that is this year, Sorkin’s film is all the more important as it shines a light on both the fragility and abuse of the system – a faction that is supposedly in place to protect us but so often fails to do so with just cause.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is screening through Dendy Cinemas for a limited season from October 1st, before arriving to stream on Netflix from October 16th.