The Trial of the Chicago 7
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
2020 has seen American citizens trying to make their voices heard through marches and protests in many cities. Some of these have turned violent, raising questions like: Did the protestors intend to be peaceful or were they aiming to create chaos? Did they start the violence or was it the police? If protesting is seen as being threatening by those who disagree with the cause (or by the government), then what should be done to ensure those in power know the opinions of those they are supposed to be serving? With these issues being some of the topics of conversation heading into the big election less than three weeks away, what better time to tell the story of the Chicago 7.
In August of 1968, rallies were held a few miles from the site of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the government’s policies on the Vietnam War. The result was several days of violent confrontations between police and protestors, which saw hundreds injured on both sides. Seven months later, eight men were charged with conspiring to cross state lines to start a riot. Those eight men were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seales.
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin dramatizes the trial and the events leading up to it in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (streaming on Netflix), a movie that shifts between being powerful and trying too hard to say what its subjects were already saying with their very existence. The performances are generally excellent; Sorkin has assembled a cast that is incredibly skilled at delivering his characteristically complex dialogue, while keeping up with his fast-pace. The courtroom scenes, and the circus surrounding them, are compelling. The parallels to today are obvious; however, I’m not sure Sorkin makes a larger point beyond “the same things that happened fifty years ago are still happening now.” Every moment seems designed to steer viewers to a conclusion we could’ve reached just by reading the Chicago Seven’s Wikipedia page. That makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 successful and frustrating.
Sorkin focuses his story somewhat by centering it on the ideological differences between Hoffman and Hayden and the biases the defendants face in the form of a judge who is either incompetent or made up his mind about their guilt before the trial even began. Of the defendants, we only get to know Hoffman, Rubin and Hayden. Though the screenplay doesn’t go into much depth on any of them, Hoffman’s antics contrasted with Hayden’s stoicism tells us enough about their differing approaches to political activism. That said, this movie is not about their beliefs. It is about the battle between their right to protest peacefully and the government’s attempts to silence them. It leans so much on its topicality that at times it comes too close to turning these guys into symbols, instead of the very real people they were.
The performances are a big reason why that doesn’t completely happen. That includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, among others. The highlights are Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Strong as Jerry Rubin and Rylance as their lawyer.
Baron Cohen and Strong are equal parts goofy and passionate as two men who see no choice but to use their personalities to bring attention to the problems plaguing their country. The filmmakers could have used their mockery of the criminal justice system to turn them into caricatures. They don’t because they allow us to see that, beneath all the jokes, this stuff is vitally important to them. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong have enjoyable chemistry together. I would like to see them star in a movie about Hoffman and Rubin, though what we got here is good enough, considering that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more concerned with the case as opposed to the individuals involved.
Mark Rylance is the heart of the movie as frustrated lawyer William Kunstler. His clients are exasperating, yet he believes in their innocence, making it all the more unbearable for him to helplessly watch as the judge dismantles his defense. It is infuriating to see this guy do everything he legally can and see it get discarded. Rylance gives us only brief glimpses at the anger bubbling under the surface of his professionalism. When it comes out, usually in small gestures, it means more than his clients’ outbursts. It would’ve been easy to get lost amid the showier members of this ensemble. Rylance stands out precisely because he doesn’t try to.
The story itself, with these performances, would’ve sufficed, but there’s a little too much hand-holding in Sorkin’s screenplay to let viewers to come to our own conclusions about why we are still having these conversations today. Even so, this is certainly worth seeking out, both because it is quite entertaining and because it serves as a reminder that the American people still struggle to get those in power to recognize their voices. This really good movie has a great one in it somewhere. It seems like Sorkin was so inspired to use it to say a lot, that his overall point was muddied.
3½ out of 5
Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman
Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden
Mark Rylance as William Kunstler
Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin
John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale
Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz
Frank Langella as Julius Hoffman
Danny Flaherty as John Froines
Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner
Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin