The Trial of the Chicago 7
Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Shenkman, J.C. MacKenzie, Frank Langella, Danny Flaherty, Noah Robbins, John Doman, Michael Keaton, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
While Aaron Sorkin has long proven himself a terrific writer, having turned out some brilliant work in the past, most notably on television, his directorial efforts have been hit-and-miss. The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than stymies claims that he has no skill behind the camera as it’s a tightly wound, captivating courtroom drama that brings his script to life through a cast that’s impressive, but properly confined.
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, four outside groups came to protest, their leaders were put on trial for the violence that ensued in spite of consensus being that it was the police who started the riots rather than the protestors. The sham trial is egged on at the behest of incoming Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) and put in the hands of young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his associate Thomas Foran (J.C. McKenzie). Eight men are roped into the proceedings for various reasons: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Winer (Noah Robbins). The eighth was unassociated with the events in Chicago and was given his own trial separate from this. That man was the leader of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Matten II).
Seale’s attorney was in the hospital, a fact he continued to remind Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) of to no avail. The remainder were represented by attorneys William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankman). Judge Hoffman was a bigoted jurist who seems to be suffering from cognitive decline, but whose clear bias is evident from the moment he steps in the courtroom, predominantly in relation to how he treats Seale.
Like in Sorkin’s various television efforts, the acting ensemble is given terrific dialogue to delight the audience while no one is given a part that outshines another. All of the actors are more than up to the task. Rylance, Gordon-Levitt, Cohen, Abdul-Mateen and Langella should be singled out for individual praise. It’s fascinating to watch these gifted actors interact with a screenplay that gives them all the tools they need to craft credible characters and a director who allows each room to breathe. Sorkin ably defines the characters and navigates the narrative with the skill of a longtime television writer, able to dig under the skin of each character, even minor ones, and give them the kind of definition an audience needs in order to form the opinions he wants them to have. For example, Schultz is painted as a go-getting legal mind in the Dept. of Justice who does have some measure of compassion while Judge Hoffman is easily painted as a man who gets a high off of controlling a courtroom.
Sorkin’s film is also a pointed political commentary on the frustrating nature of this particular trial and succinctly puts the cause where it rightly belongs while subtly jabbing the current hyper-partisan climate in Washington D.C.. It points out the noble visions of these seven litigants and asks the audience to decide if a desire for a better world for others is as important as the actions for which the defendants are charged.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a studious, accessible, intense courtroom drama that compares favorably to historically great courtroom dramas like To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, and Judgment at Nuremberg. The only difficulty the film will have is connecting with individuals on the political right who see the actions of Godless Commies and hippies as a danger to the foundations of their beliefs. However, if you look at these three courtroom predecessors, you will find the climate and the cause haven’t changed nearly as much in the intervening decades as anyone would hope, which makes the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 just as important today as the trial was in its day, only with a slightly more favorable political climate to go with it.
Guarantees: Original Screenplay
Potentials: Directing, Supporting Actor (Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Frank Langella), Film Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design
Unlikelies: Supporting Actor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Production Design, Sound Mixing
December 29, 2020