Released back in the carefree political past of September 2020, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a film that writer/director Aaron Sorkin felt at the time ‘resonates today’; knowing Sorkin, he probably did have some idea that his film would be prophetic long before the bloody tragedy of the Capitol riots. Reviewers at the time, however, would have been more inclined to think of this 60’s courtroom drama as a quaint period piece; after all, surely incendiary speeches provoking rioters, state-sanctioned violence and illegal conspiracy are no longer part of today’s political environment? Flash forward a few months to 2021, and Sorkin’s long delayed film seems to be remarkably on point and prescient, as well as a great watch.
Seven men are defendants in a politically motivated show-trial after the Democratic Convention riots of 1968; the motives of the authorities relate to creating scapegoats and a cover-up for a police operation gone wrong. Hip to their predicament, the men include hunky student activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and prankster youth leaders Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). The courtroom threatens to turn into a circus; judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) has the difficult job of steering the trial to a conclusion that’s pretty much pre-ordained from the outset, except the defendants are keen to put their own meaning on the process.
Originally gestated for Steven Spielberg, and bearing the logo of his Dreamworks factory, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was written over a decade again, but feels like a familiar playbook. The inclusion of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdhul-Mateen-II) and Fred Hampton of the Black Panther movement has since been covered in more detail in Judas and the Black Messiah, but Sorkin gives it appropriate weighting and context here, even with a little dramatic licence. While Sorkin takes the predicament of the defendants seriously, he’s also aware of the comic potential, and finds a perfect co-conspirator in Baron Cohen, who excels as the acerbic Hoffman, constantly needling the judge and intent on exposing the trial as a sham. In a terrific ensemble (pile on Michael Keaton, Mark Rylance, William Hurt and more), there was always potential for a dry acting master-class to break out; fortunately Sorkin keeps a very varied cast singing lustily from the same hymn sheet, with Redmayne and Langella are worthy MVP candidates here.
A sweet, high-profile pick-up for Netflix, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s second film as director after the starchy if absorbing Molly’s Game, but suggests he’s got what it takes to realise his own material; the film is well mounted, intelligently structured, and builds tension through a series of finely-tuned arguments and monologues en route to a big, sweeping, rousing Hollywood pay-off. The result has garnered plenty of awards-season nominations and wins, with more to come. Yet all of these recommendations still might conceal a dusty, self-regarding political lecture, of which there are plenty around right now. But with much buck-passing in the real world of American politics, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is cathartic, essential viewing for the many who feel that the current vacuum of applied public justice could be fatal to our hopes of post-virus peace and prosperity.
Thanks to Netflix for blu-ray access to this title.