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Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7, While Timely, Exudes Movie-of-the-Week Vibes

It pulses with relevancy in a time when debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America.

2.5
Chris Barsanti

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The Trial of the Chicago 7
Photo: Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison.

The result feels like a melding of the straight-forward courtroom narrative that Sorkin delivered in A Few Good Men and the fuzzier political complexities he explored in The West Wing. Cutting quickly to the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lays out the lengthy 1969 trial as a politically motivated showcase, later inserting recreations of the protests as they come up during cross-examination. While lead federal prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given some room to hem and haw about how far he’s being asked to bend the law, the Justice Department (under new management that year with the election of Richard Nixon) is shown as fully intent on making an example of the hippies. Clearly eager to help them out is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose shutting down of any dissent becomes so rote that the defendants take to shouting “overruled!” before the judge can whenever defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) makes an objection.

The grab-bag of defendants serve as a handy cross-section of the factional, squabbling anti-Vietnam War movement. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), serve as the starchy and serious counterpoint to the puckish and prankish Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), while middle-aged conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a kind of father figure to the group. Some dark comic relief is provided by John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, baffled as to why they’re even there. But the true odd man out is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had no connection to the rest of the defendants and no part in any of the protest planning, having only been in Chicago for four hours to give a speech. (A plausible theory that Sorkin puts forth is that Seale was there as a token black radical to scare the jury.)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most urgent when showing Seale’s at first infuriated and later desperate attempts to be separated from the seven other defendants or at least be allowed to defend himself. When Judge Hoffman’s glowering authoritarianism causes Seale to be handcuffed to his chair and gagged to stop him from speaking (which actually happened in an American courtroom), a sense of fulsome outrage finally grips the story. But the film, which moves on too quickly from the side plot involving Seale’s connection to Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), feels far more at home in the heady, emotive debates that spark between the white defendants. Abbie Hoffman, whose performative clowning is given thoughtful coloring by Cohen’s vulnerable performance, sees culture as just as important as politics and thinks Hayden is naïve and something of a square. “I don’t have time for cultural revolution,” Hayden hits back. “It gets in the way of actual revolution.”

That back and forth isn’t only an evergreen debate for the left but one that particularly engages Sorkin, whose better episodes of The West Wing limned the clash of idealism and realism. While Abbie Hoffman, who knew just how ludicrous he was being in court but saw the attention-getting as vital to the Chicago Seven’s cause, often gets the better of these exchanges with Hayden, Sorkin’s heart seems to be clearly on the side of practicality. At one point, frustrated by Rubin’s complaints that nobody on the jury “looks like us,” Kunstler slyly replies, “Any of you ever show up for jury duty? No? Then shut the fuck up.”

Unfortunately, the film has relatively little of that kind of punchiness. As a director, Sorkin hasn’t yet grasped how to meld personal drama and historical sweep into a cohesive whole. Although the strong cast helps the film through some of its weaker segments, Sorkin’s attempt to bring a Spielbergian fluidity to the flashbacks to convention riot chaos often fall flat. But while The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on something of a movie-of-the-week note, given the timing of its release as a current Department of Justice gins up spurious charges against political enemies, it nevertheless carries a certain past-is-prologue immediacy.

Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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