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The world is watching – ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

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As someone who is fascinated by both mid-20th century American history and the work of Aaron Sorkin, you can imagine my excitement upon learning that those two fascinations were being brought together by the folks at Netflix. It’s relatively rare that a film comes along that is so squarely in the center of a Venn diagram formed by such generally incongruous interests, so rest assured – I was pumped.

Happily, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – written and directed by Sorkin – largely lived up to my admittedly lofty expectations. It tells the story of a tumultuous time in American history through a specific event – the trial of a group of counterculture figures indicted for conspiracy to allegedly incite violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a trial that has come to be viewed by history as a travesty of justice, an effort to make an example of those who would protest the actions of their government.

It also features an absolutely stellar cast, an ensemble running deep with top-tier talent. It’s an opportunity for Sorkin to flash his own particular brand of progressive politics, all while utilizing every trick and trope in his bag to construct a compelling story. As he often does when venturing into the real world, Sorkin takes some liberties with the facts, but for the most part, the larger picture remains connected to the larger truth.

This trial took place in 1969, a few months after the bloody clash between protestors and police at the DNC in Chicago. The incoming administration, led by a vengeful and vindictive Richard Nixon, demanded that indictments be sought against those it deemed conspirators to incite the rioting that dominated the media coverage of the event.

To that end, the Attorney General enlists elite prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “7500”) to seek indictments against those figures deemed ringleaders by the Nixon cabal. Ultimately, the list extends to eight names.

Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, “The Aeronauts”) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, “The Sunlit Night”) of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, TV’s “The Spy”) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, TV’s “Succesion”) of the Youth International Party, or Yippies. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, TV’s “American Horror Story”), noted pacifist and conscientious objector. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, TV’s “Watchmen”), co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

These six – along with little-known activists John Froines (Danny Flaherty, “The Garden Left Behind”) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, “Villains”) – were the defendants in the trial. While the majority of them were represented by crusading defense attorneys William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance, “Waiting for the Barbarians”) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman, TV’s “Billions”), Seale’s personal attorney was in the hospital, leaving him without representation – a fact that would become one of the many, MANY points of contention throughout.

What followed was a trial that took months, presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, TV’s “Kidding”), whose clear biases against the defendants led to, among other things, a sheaf of contempt charges and all manner of inappropriate courtroom shenanigans – including one that led to the Conspiracy Eight becoming the Chicago Seven (no spoilers). Behind the scenes, the tensions raised by the trial resulted in conflicts between the men; in particular, Hayden and Hoffman were almost constantly at odds with one another. Interspersed throughout are memories of the fateful events during the convention that led them all to this place, All of it leading up to a simple question – can justice be done? And in a case like this, what does justice even look like?

First things first: this is Aaron Sorkin at his Sorkin-est. His dense, quippy, high-impact dialogue is here in all of its glory, with each of these men gifted with chewy speeches and sharp-edged bon mots and all manner of ideologically-charged conversations, all thoroughly steeped in Sorkin’s own brand of progressivism. And yes, that progressivism flavors his portrayals of these people, steering them in directions perhaps not entirely consistent with their real-life beliefs.

While Sorkin the director is perhaps not quite so deft as Sorkin the screenwriter, the guy is no stranger to a courtroom drama and knows enough to set things up so his immensely talented cast can cook. He has found a way to balance the taut legal proceedings with outside interactions amongst his characters and – perhaps most strikingly – with the use of real documentary footage of the events leading to the alleged crimes for which these men are being tried.

All right – let’s talk about the performances, because there’s going to be a LOT of conversation about this ensemble going into awards season. The breakout is probably Cohen, whose Abbie Hoffman, despite a questionable Boston accent, is a force of nature; at first glance, it’s an odd casting decision, but Cohen fully captures the man’s oddball charisma and energetic fury. Redmayne is a nice fit as Hayden, his generally cool head an apt counterpoint to the fire brought by Cohen’s Hoffman. It’s a much subtler performance than we usually get from Redmayne – and that’s a good thing. Strong is delightful as the stoner absurdist Jerry Rubin, his attitude evoking the establishment’s worst fears about the hippies. And Abdul-Mateen is absolutely mesmerizing as Bobby Seale, practically quivering with righteous anger and indignation; he’s got star power like few we’ve seen in recent years. Just dynamite.

The rest of the conspirators get less to do. Lynch and Sharp are actually excellent, but their roles don’t carry quite the flashiness of some of the others, so they largely take a back seat. Much like in the actual trial, Flaherty and Robbins are something of an afterthought as Froines and Werner (though there’s a meta-ness to it that’s fun). Rylance is typically awesome, as is Gordon-Levitt – both men bring the appropriate energy to their portrayals of men with very different ideas of what the law means and who it is for. And Frank Langella absolutely slays as Judge Hoffman – he is a paragon of evil stupidity and practically begs you to straight up hiss at his villainy.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” takes its share of liberties with the facts, but the truth still shines through. This film feels very timely – for any number of reasons – and is an engaging and entertaining representation of a moment in our history that we should all take pains to remember. And thanks to a typically great script and a staggeringly deep ensemble packed with phenomenal performances, a new generation will learn about this particularly tumultuous time.

The world is watching.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 October 2020 10:14

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