THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 Review

Going into a film so steeped in historical events, facts, and undoubtedly some speculation it’s difficult to not want to feel both completely educated and entertained on and by the subject come the conclusion of the film. With the second directorial effort from A Few Good Men and The Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin being based on the violent clash between police and antiwar protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention it’s even more difficult-given the similar cultural landscape we presently find ourselves in-to not want to first and foremost pay attention to the precision of Sorkin’s pen so as to not be swayed one way or another by the dramatization of it all. That said, it’s also difficult to not want to abandon the real-life aspects altogether and instead simply escape to enjoy the piece for its expertly crafted dialogue exchanges and period-accurate set decorations with hopes that what is depicted on screen respects the institution of integrity enough that we trust what the film is telling us and what it’s trying to convince us of are both genuine and honest. That the film takes the position it does will be an easier pill to swallow for a viewer who stands firmly on one side than the other which raises questions about how those on the wrong side of history now can’t see themselves in those on the wrong side of history then, but while this idea might be an aside of Sorkin’s it would seem his primary objective is to illustrate the strong foundations of our institutions, but also the myriad of ways in which they can be taken advantage of and the vitality of intent if one cannot find a complete, impartial view of the bigger picture; in essence, Sorkin seeks to create something as close to primary material as possible and in large part-especially for the first hour-you want to believe he has. If The Trial of the Chicago 7 hopes to make you feel any certain way though, it’s that type of “hurrah” mentality that no matter how evil the bad guys are the good and the just will eventually overcome it. Unfortunately, this take couldn’t feel more in contrast with today’s world despite the similarities in the challenges our protagonists are up against and the current assault our democracy is facing. Despite the stride towards a more triumphant rather than the more accurately sobering tone in the third act though, Sorkin has pieced together an airtight screenplay with an overwhelmingly impressive cast that executes the material in a substantial fashion giving the project the feel of something genuinely valuable.
Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) walk into the courtroom on the first day of their historic trial.
© Netflix

Sorkin’s film begins with a cross-cutting of different groups prepping for the 35th Democratic National Convention in a manner so electric and so brimming with energy and hope that by the time we reach the title screen and slide into the less exciting, but never any less engaging conversations of those of the buttoned-up opposition it’s no surprise which party is which. As the title card fades we jump forward five months and are introduced to federal prosecutors Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, giving an ambitiously complex performance) as they “arrive at a moment in history” while waiting in the lobby of the U.S. Department of Justice just in time for Lyndon B. Johnson’s picture to be taken down and exchanged for the newly-elected President Nixon’s. Newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) instructs the two prosecutors that they will be seeking an indictment for conspiracy to cross state lines in order to incite violence in regards to the riots that took place outside the Democratic Convention the previous summer. Mitchell wants this indictment brought against what Howard Ackerman (Damian Young), Special Advisor to the Attorney General, calls the “all-star team”, but who Mitchell likes to refer to as “the school boys” or the “rebels without a job” and he very clearly wants to make an example out of these men who he deems a “threat to national security”.

Who are these individuals that seem to give Mr. Mitchell such heartache he would go so far as to utilize a federal law that was created by southern whites in congress to limit the free speech of black, civil rights activists? A law no one had ever been charged with breaking before, but the one Mitchell-the only United States Attorney General to ever serve a prison sentence for his eventual role in the Watergate scandal-decided to utilize in order to make an example out of these so-called “shitty little fairies” in order to demonstrate what happens when one threatens the America he grew up in? Well, it begins with the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society in Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp). There’s also the leaders of the Youth International Party or the “Yippies” in Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). This is where things begin to get interesting when talking about the seven individuals referred to in the film’s title though as husband, father, and boy scout leader David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch) who was the leader of the Mobilization to the End the War in Vietnam or “The Mobe” takes the fifth spot with the likes of Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) being brought in to fill the final two spots for what are optical reasons and nothing more. Weiner and Froines have a great introductory bit in which they’re discussing their odd inclusion in the trial with Weiner noting that this is basically, “the academy awards of protests and he feels honored just to be nominated.” 

The true sixth and final member in this trial though is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party – a man also only brought into the trial and perpetuated as being connected to the defendants only because of the color of his skin and stature among the Black Panthers. Seale, though he hardly knows any of his fellow defendants and doesn’t even share the same lawyer, is brought in to make the otherwise very white defendants appear more threatening and scary. It’s a despicable act of racism and it’s not the first time in the mere half hour we are into the film when Seale makes this point concrete that viewers should be taken aback by the immediacy of the relevance to our modern world. Though we only meet Attorney General Mitchell briefly, it is his words that echo the sentiment that Sorkin seemingly hopes to expertly refute in how he handles the dramatization of the trial itself. Mitchell’s quest is to restore the America he believed existed during his youth. Just for perspective though, Mitchell’s adolescent America was that of the America from about 1918 or the end of World War I and the beginning of the Spanish Flu through to the Stock Market crash of 1929 and into the Great Depression. So, what a time to be alive, eh? If his rose-tinted glasses had ever been removed and allowed him the realization that a world existed outside of whatever Mitchell’s experiences were as a child he might have realized every generation has their challenges, their perspective shifts, and their own form of revolution in order to meet the needs of natural human evolution. 

From left: Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
© Netflix

Rather, the only thing that apparently mattered to this, at the time, fifty-six year-old man was that his predecessor – Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) – disrespected him in his exit from the office and in turn Mitchell planned to sink to sad levels of pettiness that he also apparently had no qualms in being up front about. This group that was protesting not the police brutality they fully expected to encounter in Chicago or even the continued struggle of police brutality against Black Americans, but in fact what would turn out to be the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War where, in those summer months, over 1,000 American troops would die every month are who Nixon supporters would refer to with such vitriol as “revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the government of the United States of America.” What The Trial of the Chicago 7 comes to do with all its history, its first-hand accounts and court documents, its numerous players and all their conflicting motivations is embody a section of the population that were tired of seeing their friends being drafted and killed, their peaceful and non-violent leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (killed in April ’68) and Robert Kennedy (killed in June ’68) being shot in cold blood – not to mention the execution of the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (portrayed here by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – to the extent the film ultimately provides both a look at the inner-workings of our justice system and the type of context for what ended up transpiring at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that said system controlled and manipulated in whatever way necessary to get the result the government sought. 

The key word here is context and just as Sorkin, the writer, is intent on drawing parallels to the actions that transpired because of the thought processes of a few, fragile men Sorkin, the director, is keen on structuring his film so as to show the recounted actions of these riots with an emphasis on context so as the viewer understands how, without context, anyone can be gassed, beaten, arrested and put on trial simply for holding a different set of ideas than those holding the sticks. In the latter half of the film the climactic speech is given via a wonderful and very near groundbreaking performance by Cohen as Abbie Shaboysnakoff where he discusses Lincoln’s inaugural address and, specifically, the portion where the sixteenth President stated that, “when the people shall grow weary of their constitutional right to amend their government, they shall exert their revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow that government.” Abbie goes on to say how if Lincoln had given that speech outside the hotel where the convention was held in the summer of 1968 he would have been put on trial alongside the rest of them. Furthermore, Sorkin is sure to put the definitive period on his research paper by having Cohen give his thesis statement of how anyone “can do anything to anything by taking it out of context,” which he then emphasizes with an example from the Bible for good measure. Nothing hammers home a point like Jesus! Jokes not completely aside, Sorkin knows exactly what he’s doing here in both providing his argument, the basis around his position, and numerous examples that support said arguments while improving upon the pacing, character definition (I haven’t mentioned them yet, but both Mark Rylance’s Williams Kunstler and Ben Shenkman’s Leonard Weinglass who serve as the defense counsel here are fantastic), and intertwined moments of levity in his directing making The Trial of the Chicago 7 a vastly superior film to that of his directing debut. It may not be a thousand percent accurate and it may devolve too much into manufactured drama as opposed to a biting commentary with hard-hitting truths and small moments that invoke a unified compassion, but it offers something like hope and as elusive as that feeling seems to be these days it is a reward we probably shouldn’t take for granted.

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