Society surely exists for nothing else other than to progress, to refine. Each new generation fights to advance a little further when it comes to the balance of civil liberties and governmental control with no eventual victory, nor any final defeat. Yet the fight to prevent those with power, seeking to overwhelm those without, when politically desirous to do so is depressingly eternal. The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story of how counter culture and anti-war protests-turned-riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention led to a trial of those deemed responsible.
Anyone who loves a good courtroom drama will be instantly at home here. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin has strong form with such credits as writing both the stage play and movie screenplay for A Few Good Men, and also creating dizzyingly successful TV show The West Wing. The movie moves back and forth across the timeline of events so that information is released piecemeal, with the central focus point being the trial itself.
Those accused of conspiracy by the U.S. government include: Youth International Party founders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong); leader of Students for Democratic Process, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), leader of anti-Vietnam war group MOBE; and national chairman of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Redmayne and Cohen give the central performances as their character’s approaches to the trial are wildly opposed. The former wants to work the system respectfully, whereas the latter utilises theatrical stunts (such as dressing as the judge) to mock the court. And there is plenty to mock, as Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) clearly has no patience for letting the defendants get a fair crack of the whip, including denying Bobby Seale the right to represent himself in the absence of his lawyer. Most of the snappiest dialogue fizzes around these scenes which sparkle with wit and exasperation throughout.
Outside of the courtroom, Sorkin plays fast and loose with the chronology of events, telling a narratively convenient version of what happened on those fateful days. Yet such scenes are tied together smartly so that even with the large amount of information and characters chugging along you don’t get lost as to who is who or what is going on, even as matters build to the shocking (and true) outcome of Seal being ordered gagged and bound in court due to his frequent demands that his constitutional rights be upheld.
That said there is some fat around the edges that adds little: Cohen’s derisory Hoffman spends several scenes narrating the course of events after the fact to a rapt crowd. This works on a practical basis to relay information rather than give any verve to character. Similarly, the clashes between Hoffman and Hayden come to an argumentative peak yet get all resolved with an ‘oh, ok then’ finality that doesn’t really satisfy. Outside of the documented courtroom and riotous events themselves, the surrounding scenes are hit and miss with plugging in the gaps.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers on Sorkin’s trademark fast-paced and skilfully crafted dialogue which is ideally suited to legal and political struggles. The large cast are stellar and there isn’t space here to praise them all, but Mark Rylance as defence lawyer William Kunstler is superb as a man whose dogged professionalism is sorely tested by a judge pushing the limits of impartiality.
With modern tensions again boiling over into fiery clashes, particularly in the U.S., The Trial of the Chicago 7 serves as a timely reminder that throughout history to now, the way a nation does justice (and is seen to do so) is the most important pillar of any society, lest we crumble into belligerence, bile, and blood.
Words by Mike Record