Film Review – The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) examines the real-life story of seven protestors put on trial following the infamous riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Those accused of inciting violence came from different parts of the country and from various walks of life, but they all converged on the city for the same purpose: to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. Their purpose became skewed, however, as their arrests and the following trial became a circus show. They became the story instead of the message they were trying to convey.
This is a throwback to the popular courtroom dramas of the 1990s. It falls right alongside A Few Good Men (1992), A Time to Kill (1996), and Primal Fear (1996) to name a few. This is a bit timelier in its subject matter. In an election year, with social unrest at a boiling point due to a pandemic, police discrimination, and nationwide protests, this is just as much about what is happening right now as well as what was going on in 1968. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Aaron Sorkin has always been a master of compelling dialogue. The way characters speak sets the pace, and here the approach has a breathless energy. In a movie that features people talking for a vast majority of the runtime, the momentum never fades. The narrative picks up just as the trial begins. We meet the Chicago 7: 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 Weiner (Noah Robbins). There is an eight defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but he makes it clear that he is not part of the 7 and isn’t represented by their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).
Immediately, the trial becomes a sham. The presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) exhibits a clear bias. Even the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees it. Hoffman demands that everyone respects his courtroom but doesn’t have the decency to remember participants’ names. He throws out testimony beneficial to the defense for meaningless reasons, and hands out contempt charges like candy. Perhaps the most egregious is Hoffman’s treatment of Seale. Seale – a black man and a member of the Black Panther party – is treated without the same rights as the other defendants. Hoffman allows the trial to commence even when Seale’s attorney is not present. He suggests that Kunstler speak for Seale simply because he’s sitting next to him. Hoffman is an obvious metaphor for the systemic racism that still exists today.
It’s an uphill battle for the defendants, to say the least. Not only do they have to work to prove their innocence, they also have to do it against a judge that barely hides his dislike of them. Alan Baumgarten’s editing cuts the narrative into two different sections: the events of the trial and the flashbacks leading up to the riot. Sorkin’s dialogue is the connective thread. Testimonies are juxtaposed with visual representations of what actually happened, creating a steady rhythm. The style isn’t repetitive – it allows for a broader context to fill in the holes. One of the better sequences exemplifying this is during a montage of witness cross examinations. We get a train of undercover agents, police officers, and city officials all giving their accounts with the editing bouncing between the past and present. It’s fast and punchy in terms of film construction. It also reveals how much the protestors were being watched. A character asks if anybody they interacted with wasn’t working with the authorities.
This being a throwback to ‘90s courtroom dramas works both as a benefit and a hindrance. It follows the basic formula of the genre and doesn’t offer much surprises. We get the usual stuff: the big passionate speeches, the key witnesses called in at the last second, and the judge pounding his gavel like a drum. Because the narrative is so focused on the case itself, we don’t get a lot of character development. Despite all the actors giving strong performances, their roles are more ideological symbols as opposed to flesh and blood people. Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman emerge as two sides of the same coin. They both want the war to end, but Hayden – himself having political aspirations – believes they can use the system to get what they want. Abbie – member of the hippie generation – believes a full-on cultural revolution is needed. We never go deeply into characters other than what they represent to society. A major point of tension is Hayden and Hoffman both working for the same goal but doing it on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an engaging enough watch, but it feels mechanical. There are plenty of political and courtroom fireworks, but it lacks a beating heart. It doesn’t pull us in emotionally, even when it tries its hardest to do so. The characters are treated like types, we learn very little about who they really are. If you’re looking for a timely movie to fill up two hours, this would be a good suggestion. But if you want to get a full view of the real-life case and the social parallels between then and now, this sadly comes up short.