Written PostJosh Reviews The Trial of the Chicago 7

Josh Reviews The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7, written & directed by Aaron Sorkin (mastermind behind Sports Night & The West Wing, writer of such terrific films as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and Charlie Wilson’s War, and the writer/director of the underrated Molly’s Game) tells the story of the seven men (really eight, counting Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers) who were put on trial by the U.S. government following the violence between the Chicago Police and the anti-war and counter-culture protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  The film is a story about members of our government using their political power to try to destroy their enemies.  It’s about how our criminal justice system can be twisted by bad-faith actors to be used as a weapon against against our citizenry.  And it’s about men and women protesting what they see as the wrongs of our society and being met by anger and violence from the police.  In short, this is not only a critical history lesson that’s important for every American — it’s also a film that is very much about what is happening in the United States of America today in 2020.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is phenomenal.  It’s riveting.  It’s funny and it’s horrifying.  It’s a film that will make you angry — it’s designed to do so — but it’s not a depressing slog.  Mr. Sorkin’s skill with dialogue ensures that almost every single scene is so brilliantly written that you’ll be dazzled by the word-play.  His skill with structure ensures that he is able to dramatize a trial that went on for month after long month is presented in such a way that, when watching the film unfold, you’re carried along with the drama of the story.  The film that is jam-packed with characters and plot points, but Aaron Sorkin’s stills as a writer and director ensures that none of this ever becomes overwhelming or confusing or, worst of all, boring.  (The film’s opening sequence, which introduces us to a wealth of characters and backstory in a mile-a-minute series of walk-and-talk scenes that somehow manage to be clear, concise, and fun, is magnificent, and gave me confidence that I was in good hands with this film.)

The cast is absolutely extraordinary.  One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well we’re allowed to get to know all eight defendants in the trial, how they’re each well-developed as distinct and interesting characters.  (OK, six of the eight.  We don’t spend too much time with Lee Weiner, played by Noah Robbins (Zach on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or John Froines, played by Daniel Flaherty (Matthew Beeman on The Americans), the two defendants who Abbie Hoffman suggests, late in the film, were only added to the group so the jury would have someone to feel good about acquitting.)

Sacha Baron Cohen is extraordinary, as he always is, as Abbie Hoffman, the cofounder of the Youth International Party (Yippies).  Mr. Cohen is best known for his incredible comedic creations but I’ve always thought he was a great dramatic actor as well (see: The Spy).  Both skills are on strong display here, as he carries a lot of heavy dramatic weight while also using his perfect comedic skill to land every verbal barb.  Mr. Cohen gets most of the film’s very best lines.  Jeremy Strong is hilarious as Jerry Rubin, Mr. Hoffman’s friend and co-founder of the Yippies.  I’m always impressed by how Mr. Strong can morph himself into such completely different characters!  His role here is entirely different from his work in films such as The Gentlemen, Molly’s Game, The Big Short, Selma, Zero Dark Thirty, or Lincoln.  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was one of the best parts of HBO’s recent Watchmen series, and if anything he’s even better here as Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers who was unfairly included in this trial despite the fact that he had not been involved in the planning of any of the Chicago protests.  He is incredibly compelling in depicting both Mr. Seale’s anger and his dignity as he is forced to endure one horrific blow after another.  It’s fun seeing Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) take on a very different character than the types I’ve generally seen him play, here, in his role as Tom Hayden, a Freedom Rider and leader in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and later the Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam).  Alex Sharp is excellent as Rennie Davis, Tom’s friend and partner in the SDS and Mobe, who was badly beaten by Chicago police officers during the protests.  The consistently-great John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Face/Off, Shutter Island, Zodiac) is terrific as always as David Dellinger, a pacifist and nonviolent protester who was arrested as a conscientious objector during World War I and who later was a Freedom Rider and then a leader in the 1960s anti-war movement.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the amazing cast in this movie!  Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, The BFG) is tremendous as William Kuntsler, the soft-spoken but fiercely intelligent civil rights activist and lawyer who defended the Chicago Seven.  Ben Shenkman (Roger Dodger, Curb Your Enthusiasm) shines as Leonard Weinglass, who collaborated with Mr. Kuntsler in the defense of the Chicago Seven.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 50/50, (500) Days of Summer, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper) is terrific (I’m running out of synonyms for great!!) as Richard Schultz, the intelligent young man tasked as the U.S. government’s lead prosecutor.  Frank Langella (Dave, Good Night and Good Luck, Frost/Nixon, The Americans) is perfection as Judge Julius Hoffman, who demonstrates a terrifying unfairness towards the defendants in the trial.  Michael Keaton steals the show in only two scenes — albeit critically important ones — as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

It must have been a tremendous challenge to squeeze the events of a trial that lasted five months (from September 1969 through February 1970) into a two hour film, but Mr. Sorkin admirably allows the film to dip in and out of the trial in a way that feels satisfying and pleasingly well-paced.  It’s an impressive achievement.  (The only time I felt that some scenes were missing was towards the end.  We heard a prediction earlier that Lee Weiner and John Froines would get acquitted, but we never see that.  When the remaining defendants appear in court for their sentencing, they’re all wearing prison jumpsuits.  This suggests that they all got themselves imprisoned in solidarity with David Dellinger, something they’d talked about earlier; but I’d have loved to have gotten to see what happened.  Also, it seems a surprising omission to me that we never once see Bobby Seale after the dramatic developments in which his legal case is separated from the other seven defendants.  I know that Mr. Seale was not longer involved with this trial after that happened, but to not even get a glimpse of him again for the rest of the movie seems weirdly to indicate that Mr. Seale was a less-important character in this story than the other white men on trial.  I’m sure that wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention.)

This story feels to me like a perfect match for Aaron Sorkin’s sensibilities: his love of politics, of heart-on-your-sleeve speechifying, of smart characters engaged in rigorous intellectual debate, of balancing serious drama with comedic moments.  I know some people don’t care for Mr. Sorkin’s style of writing, but personally I have always loved the beautiful rhythm of his words, and I’ve always respected his portrayal of idealistic characters dreaming and working hard for a better world.

I think The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a fantastic film, and it’s also an important one.  It gave me that feeling, as the end-credits rolled, that only the best films do: I wanted to watch it again, immediately.

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