The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin Runtime: 2hr 10 min Rated: R
Studio: Netflix, Cross Creek pictures, Dreamworks Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance
The Trial of the Chicago 7 by Aaron Sorkin is one of those films that seeks to have the audience ask, ‘what do I feel?’
I wasn’t around back then, but the Vietnam war was raging. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated that year. The Chicago riots happened, and Nixon was elected president.
Put aside your own political leanings for a moment. This movie follows, loosely, seven men leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, Illinois. They all start out trying to get permission from the city to assemble thousands of people from multiple states in the park across from where the DNC will be. Their various paths go from there, which the movie shows, to let the viewer see how and why they all end up in court for inciting a riot.
Now, there was a real “trial of the Chicago 7” in 1969. This film is based on that.
The seven on trial were:
1. Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) 2. John Froines (Danny Flaherty) 3. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) -Leader of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (The Mobe). 4. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) -Leaders of the Youth International Party (Yippies). 5. Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) -Leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
The trial itself lasted almost five months. In all that time, an eighth man was attached to this trial for less than a month for no other reason than he was black, which would intimidate the jury. His name was Bobby Seal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of the Black Panther Party. This whole section will have you exploring how you feel. The rationale for the eight being on trial was blood boiling enough, but the treatment Bobby Seal was subjected to and endured during the trial is a story of its own. Mateen does a great job in his portrayal, short though his involvement was.
So the film seems believable, being adapted well from actual events, as far as I can tell. The ensemble of defendants were activists from differing walks of life. People fed up with the system, racism, corruption, and the war in Vietnam. They wanted to peacefully march and protest with bands playing music in the park. While this film could have done a better job at highlighting the attempts at the “peaceful” components of the real-life events, you do see it. Each character has a bit of a moment to show you who these men were, though Weiner and Froines are hardly heard from, as they were patsies in real life.
Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t just look like Abbie Hoffman; Cohen naturally comes off as him. Rubin and Hoffman were like performance artist-activists, or so I read, and it’s not a stretch to see Cohen standing on a stage and delivering pot-shot commentary on the trial. Rubin seems like a man of action in handling certain situations, and Jeremy Strong is believable as much. (I have good examples, but that would spoil things). The scenes with Hoffman and Rubin really help to break up the otherwise impertinent tone of events.
In great contrast to Rubin and Hoffman was David Dellinger, a pacifist. He’s mainly quiet, and when you hear him, it reminded me of a parent chaperoning a field trip that no one listens to.
Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden are the quieter, well-spoken of the group. Throughout the trial, Rennie’s actions weaved like a needle and thread. Serving as a reminder of why they all went to Chicago. Well-intended as Hayden might have been for taking his group, the SDS, to Chicago in 1968, he was kind of a tosser. While Eddie Redmayne is a talented actor, this is a static role for him and does nothing to highlight his abilities.
To highlight something for my non-American readers, a person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country. And yet, five decades later, the judicial system is still a stage for those with power who are corrupt, absolute. Judge Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, was the living embodiment of all the things you don’t want in a judge. Langella depicts Hoffman accurately (so I’ve read), which angers me but doesn’t surprise me that such a cankerous bigot would be in such a position. Especially in Illinois.
Frank Langella and Sacha Baron Cohen are the two characters who really make the film worth sticking around for, aside from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portions. Without them, the scenes of the actual riots, and the use of original footage, this film would be a snooze-fest.
While this movie is undoubtedly watchable, it could have been better if Aaron Sorkin hadn’t written and directed it. Someone else should have directed it. Sorkin peppers in real-life quotes with his sharp writing, which works, if a bit unbelievable.
The real trial of 1969 had people chanting, “the whole world is watching,” every day. At the time, there would have been no way to forget that this trial was about men opposed to the Vietnam war. When watching this movie, I was distracted from that. Distracted by the obtuse, bigoted, racists, arrogance on display in the courtroom. The overreaction of the Mayor of Chicago turning his city into a police state. All the events in response to the anti-war protests in Chicago in Sorkin’s dramatization overshadowed the Vietnam war itself. For everyone who wasn’t alive at the time watching this, it minimizes the seriousness of the national objection to the war in Vietnam. That is a disservice to history.
It’s a good movie for a streaming service release; after spending only a few in actual theaters because of Covid. I don’t think this would have done very well at the box office. Still, it is a good introduction to a topic or about real-life moments in history to have a conversation on; to ask what you would do if you were the one on trial. For that reason, you could add it to your watch list.
—a pen lady