Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin’s compelling courtroom drama captures the turmoil of 1960s counterculture, and strikes a chord with our times 4 stars.

(Image: Netflix)

The strongest attraction of the courtroom drama, which sets it apart from other film genres, is its ability to entertain, simply with compelling dialogue. 

Sorkin’s expertise at transferring the tension of a courtroom into a compelling film is evident; he lets the largely motionless camera soak up the action, while his screenplay does the talking. Although The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is only Aaron Sorkin’s sophomore feature film as director, he is no stranger to the characteristics of courtroom rhetoric. Sorkin penned the screenplay for the 1992 classic legal drama, A Few Good Men, featuring Jack Nicholson’s often-quoted line, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’.

The historical context which Sorkin’s film explores is intriguing. The story documents the somewhat overlooked trial of 7 anti-Vietnam War activists, accused of crossing state borders to incite riots outside the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in August 1968. In reality, the demonstrations were intended to be peaceful ones, opposing the vehemently pro-Vietnam Democratic candidate, Humphrey Hubert. However, the riots turned bloody with the intervention of the Chicago police, who savagely beat protestors with truncheons. Gruesome footage of the riots was broadcast by media networks to an audience of around 90 million Americans. The coverage catalysed opposition to the Vietnam War, and illustrated the most divisive period in American history since the Civil War, a century before.

Hubert’s presidential campaign was sabotaged by the protests, which consequently led to the election of Republican Richard Nixon. Ironically, it was Nixon’s administration who would attempt to disparage the ‘Chicago 7’ in the show trial which Sorkin’s film documents, in the hope that support for the war would regain momentum. A show trial is precisely what it was for co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is roped into the proceedings alongside the ‘Chicago 7’, and subjected to the blatantly racist judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). We are left frustrated as Seale’s ardent defence of himself is constantly dismissed by the cruel judge.

The chief members of the ‘Chicago 7’, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his sidekick, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), supply the film’s comic moments with their devil-may-care courtroom antics. One moment sees Rubin amusedly catch an egg pelted at him by angry bystanders; another sees Hoffman mock the irascible judge, who shares his surname. Both Hoffman and Rubin were co-founders of the Youth International Party (or ‘Yippies’), and epitomise the stereotypical ‘Flower Power’ mentality of the hippie movement. For a seasoned comic actor like Sacha Baron Cohen, it’s no surprise that Sorkin hands him the most gags, though watching Cohen successfully execute a serious acting role is refreshing; his convincing performance proves he is no one-trick pony.

Having won his Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything (2014), Eddie Redmayne’s performance as politician and activist, Tom Hayden, is unsurprisingly excellent. The character development between Hayden and Hoffman generates most of the film’s tension outside the courtroom setting. Intense riot scenes intercut the courtroom action, highlighting the violent chaos that erupted on the streets of Chicago all those years ago, even more so than the media cameras could. These visceral scenes are the zenith of all the build-up we’ve witnessed in the form of many rapturous speeches, and heated conversations.

The ending seems to distil both the best, and worst of classic American nationalism. It is hard to decide whether it is a display of cliché patriotism, or a genuinely poignant scene. It’s morally uplifting, politically satisfying, but perhaps edging on pretentious. Nevertheless, the film is apt for viewing in these modern times, with 2020 seeing the largest wave of civil unrest since the epoch of political, and cultural turmoil that plagued the late 1960s. As Covid-19 sweeps America, thousands take to the streets to protest against racial injustice and President Trump, whose incompetent administration has made the immoral practices of Nixon’s White House look tame by comparison.

The ‘Chicago 7’ experienced civil unrest over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Watergate, and Vietnam. Modern parallels, in the form of civil unrest over George Floyd’s death, Trump, and Covid-19, prove that history has gone full circle. Sorkin’s film reminds us of this déjà vu, however uncomfortable it may be.

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