A zippy courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of the first major Oscar contenders of 2020.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, who is fresh off a Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story of the eight men put on trial for conspiracy and inciting violence during the protests of the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
From the opening frame of the film, Sorkin is off to the races with a montage of old footage. Martin Luther King was shot. Robert Kennedy was shot. Thousands of men were being drafted to be sent to their death in Vietnam. It was quite a turbulent time in the history of our nation. Transitioning from this archival prologue, Sorkin begins to introduce the players, or rather, “the radical left in different costumes” as they’re later referred to; time is not wasted with these introductions, so you better keep up.
Eddie Redmayne, giving a bloody good American accent, plays Tom Hayden, the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); he is accompanied by his co-pilot Rennie Davis, played by Alex Sharp. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong playfully fill in the roles of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, stoner revolutionaries and founders of the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies. John Carrol Lynch is David Dellinger, a Boy Scout leader who champions non-violent activism. Yahya Abdul Mateen II gives a brief yet impactful turn all the same as Barry Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther party wrongfully lumped in with the rest of the defendants despite barely having been involved with the protests. Lastly, Noah Robbins and Daniel Flaherty round off the list of those on trial as Lee Weiner and John Froines, but the cast doesn’t end there. Mark Rylance excellently balances affability and earnestness as defense attorney William Kuntsler. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has drawn comparisons to Atticus Finch in his performance as lead prosecutor Richard Schultz, and Frank Langella commands the courtroom as the imperiously unsympathetic Judge Julius Hoffman. If it was not ostensibly clear, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an ensemble-driven acting showcase, and Sorkin makes sure everyone receives their turn in the spotlight – if not a couple times.
And where would these performances be without the razor-sharp dialogue of Aaron Sorkin? The script is loaded with quips and zingers to the point that Cohen’s Hoffman literally says “Zing!” in response to a comeback made by Redmayne’s Hayden. Despite the film being primarily set within the same courtroom for its over two-hour runtime, Sorkin always finds a way to spice things up and keep the ball rolling.
Ironically, for all the deserved praise that has been thrown Sorkin’s way for his writing, his film’s most poignant moment is one where nothing is said at all. After one contempt of court too many, Judge Hoffman has Barry Seale taken away from the room, only for Seale to be returned bound to a chair and gagged. It is in those seconds when Seale is gone that everyone in attendance at the trial is left to sit in horrified silence, knowing exactly what is happening out of sight. If the events preceding this scene hadn’t already done so, it is in this instance where Sorkin confirms how screwed up the justice system was at the time. Seale exits the trial shortly thereafter, as prosecutor Schultz reminds Judge Hoffman that he has a man “gagged and bound in an American courtroom.” Thus, the Chicago Eight officially became the Chicago Seven.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an important film, not only because it draws direct parallels to the riots, protests, and acts of police brutality we have witnessed this year (Sorkin demonstrating his sympathies lay well on the side of the Black Lives Matter movement), but also because it introduces people, specifically younger people like me, to a pivotal case in American history. I didn’t have much of a clue about the trial and its many activist characters until I watched the film. It is important not to consider The Trial of the Chicago 7 to be more than an introduction to the event, as Sorkin is known for taking creative liberties with his stories based on real life to enhance dramatics. But the problem with the film isn’t a matter of it being overly dramatic. As I began to dig deeper into the actual story of the “Chicago Seven,” I found Sorkin shortchanged the nastiness of what really took place. Barry Seale was bound and gagged for much more than a few minutes, and Richard Schultz was a Nixon attack-dog rather than a sympathetic conservative who could be swayed to the other side after a few impassioned speeches. Sorkin allows his idealistic lens to soften what actually happened. While this makes for a more digestible and uplifting film, it also may give viewers the false impression that this time in history wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. When tackling themes such as systemic racism, political corruption, and police brutality, I’ll choose hard-hitting truth over comfort every time.
I liked The Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin will be a frontrunner for best original screenplay, and likely one, if not several, of the film’s talented cast members will be recognized by the Academy. But, the film seems too afraid to be meaningfully critical of American institutions for their shortcomings, and chooses to pin the problems on conservative leadership. 8.5/10