Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin | 129 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Ben Shenkman, JC MacKenzie, Frank Langella, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, John Doman Mike Geraghty, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin FitzGerald, John Quilty, Max Adler, Michael A. Dean, Meghan Rafferty, Brady Jenness, Steve Routman, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Kate Miller
In 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago degenerates into bloody riots as police and the Illinois National Guard crack down on protesters against the Vietnam War. After the presidential election, Richard M. Nixon comes to power. His Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) wants seven leaders of those protests and the chairman of the Black Panther movement Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to be charged. They allegedly conspired to violently disrupt the Convention and face up to ten years in prison.
The eight are from all walks of life: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are short-haired students, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are long-haired “beatniks” of the Yippie movement, the middle-aged family man David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) a conscientious objector and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) are not exactly leading figures and seem to have been chosen more or less by chance. It is quite remarkable that Seale also has to be brought to justice. He gave one speech in Chicago and was not involved in the riots at all. Although they have been sued jointly, the differences between them are significant: Hayden believes in institutional reform from within, while Hoffman and Rubin want to unleash a cultural revolution. Hoffman is convinced that this is a political process, while Hayden remains committed to his idea of the founding principles of American democracy and due process. It soon becomes apparent that practice works differently than Hayden thinks.
Those who like American court dramas will love ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’. The process is central and a large part of the film takes place in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom. This is interspersed with flashbacks to the grim atmosphere and the riots in the summer of 1968. As a result, more and more of the lead-up to the trial is revealed. The year 1968 is a traumatic one in American history. Young people are turning against the ongoing war in Vietnam. In March, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election in November. In April, Martin Luther King is assassinated, followed two months later by presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. That summer, the Democratic National Convention meets in Chicago, Illinois. The various activist groups represented by the eight want to demonstrate there against the war. Although the then incumbent Minister of Justice Ramsey Clark (a nice supporting role by Michael Keaton) does not prosecute, his successor Mitchell thinks very differently. It is mind-boggling to see how much the process is manipulated. For example, Secretary Mitchell gives the prosecutors compelling instructions, which Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Moran (JC MacKenzie) loyally carry out. And Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) also turns out to be anything but objective. While in the beginning one can laugh about his scrambling of the names of the suspects and his clarification that he is not related to Abbie Hoffman, he gradually forms a serious threat to the suspects and he relentlessly hinders a fair trial. Seale in particular has to suffer. He doesn’t have a lawyer, but to Hoffman’s chagrin, he is advised by fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The reason the movie is called “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is because Seale (No. 8) is removed from the trial, leaving seven suspects. Their lawyer, William Kunstler, starring character actor Mark Rylance, meanwhile desperately tries to get a somewhat orderly trial to take place. Rylance shows a passionate man with a great sense of nuance, who realizes that the outcome is already certain and then gradually exposes the farce.
It is only Sorkin’s second film as a director, after the thriller ‘Molly’s Game’ from 2017. Sorkin also wrote the screenplay himself, which is entrusted to him as a word artist. For example, he wrote the equally excellent court drama ‘A Few Good Men’ (based on his own play), ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, ‘The Social Network’ and was the mastermind behind the hit series “The West Wing”. he was fired after four seasons for drug use. In this film, as a director, he puts down a strongly constructed and compelling story, which sticks to the real events quite well. It’s difficult to tell a process that takes months in just over two hours, but Sorkin keeps a tight grip on the storyline. The dialogues are of course again sublime, which are fluently spoken by a collection of excellent actors. Perhaps the witticisms and sharp remarks are sometimes a little too fluid. It’s not just Rylance who plays superbly; the entire cast plays good roles, where they all get one or more moments to shine. Frank Langella takes the viewer’s nerves as the authoritarian judge Hoffman and Sacha Baron Cohen deserves an honorable mention for his portrayal of Abbie Hoffman.
The film had a difficult production. Originally Steven Spielberg was going to direct the film in 2007 and he wanted Heath Ledger in the role that Redmayne now plays. The plans fell apart and in the end it was Sorkin himself who filmed his script. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works for an extended cinema release. The makers made a deal with streaming service Netflix, which added ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ to their wide film offer from October 2020.