The Trial of the Chicago 7 is rife with modern parallels complete with police brutality, racial injustice, and rowdy protesters. It may be a dramatic recreation of what happened about 50 years ago but the themes, sadly, still resonate today. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) keeps things at a rapid-fire pace with a flip flopping flashback structure and lots of quipping characters, but the heart of the story is powerful. It may be a hopeless fight against the system but they still fight nonetheless.
In 1968, protesters descended upon the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to speak out against the Vietnam War. A riot broke out and a group of protesters were charged, with them eventually being dubbed The Chicago 7. Organizers Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) are accused of travelling to Chicago to incite a riot, something that their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), is trying to acquit them of, even as a federal prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), does his best to convict the crew. Also in their group is Black Panther co-founder Bobby (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is without legal representation and repeatedly states that he was nowhere near the riots. Although Kunstler is trying his best to free the accused, they all continually butt heads with the horribly unfair Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who seems set upon sending them away for crimes they didn’t commit.
The structure of the film is similar to the Sorkin scripted Social Network, wherein the story is set at a legal proceeding with lots of flashbacks to the events. Sorkin deftly weaves the flashbacks with commentary from people serving as setup and voice over narration. At first the flipping back and forth may be a bit jarring as the script throws the audience right into the legal proceedings without much context but all parties and motivations are eventually revealed. The opening scene is a propulsive introduction that intercuts characters preparing to go to the protest with scenes of a nation in disarray and real life historical footage, all coming together in a exhilarating opening montage that sets the stage for the legal drama.
The biggest hurdle is the domineering Judge Hoffman which Langella portrays as somewhat mentally dubious overlord and sometimes raging egomaniac. There are numerous times when it feels like Kunstler is going to make legal headway and then the judge maliciously shuts it down. It ugly how he treats Bobby; when the Black Panther co-founder is rightfully trying to object that he has no legal representation the Judge just snaps at him to sit down and shut up. This comes to a head in an astonishing moment where the judge orders Bobby to be restrained which is downright horrifying and is, shockingly, historically accurate. Abdul-Mateen as Bobby has many powerful scenes, like when he compares the strife that the white protesters go through versus the deadly repercussions he faces.
Gordon-Levitt as the prosecutor has a wry sense of humour even if what he is doing is terrible, but he still does it to the best of his ability. Redmayne’s Tom spends most of the trial trying to keep his head down which is a contrast to the bold protester he is in the flashbacks. As their lawyer, Rylance does a good job of showing how frustrated he is at the unfair legal roadblocks but he’s always thinking ahead. The biggest and loudest part is Cohen as Abbie, a bombastic ideological revolutionary that is constantly throwing out quips but hiding a real pain underneath his cavalier attitude. He has a sidekick stoner hippie buddy, Jerry (Jeremy Strong) who has some great funny bits. One of the movie’s funniest scenes is when Jerry is aghast that one girl he was hitting on at the protest turns out to be an FBI agent, and he gets to confront Schultz about an imagined federal agent conspiracy and it gets amusing snarky. Even the small role from John Carroll Lynch as a fellow accused rioter delivers some fantastic brief moments. The cast is quite astonishing with a short but effective role from Michael Keaton that flips the entire motivation for the case on its head. As Trial juggles so many different characters they all get small character arcs which reach a satisfying conclusion.
Even though it is a very talky script, its never dull with jokes hidden inside of dramatic moments throughout that reward listening closely. And the movie isn’t all dialogue, the flashbacks to the protests are really gripping with a menacing slow burn to full on chaos as the music by Daniel Pemberton accentuates the growing anarchy. There is even a really cool, menacing psychedelic rock style song over the closing credits that are propulsive ode to the anger spilling over on the streets.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a whole lot of layers as a verbally amusing quip comedy and also a lacerating incitement of broken political system that still tries to suppress dissent as violently and brutally 50 years ago as it does today. It is a smart, thoughtful and entertaining movie that both is a lament about the inevitability of ruling class brutality and a call for standing up for change.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp and Sacha Baron Cohen