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‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’
by Julian Hart

With its timely political story, The Trial of the Chicago 7 proves a sprawling and moving period drama reminiscent of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s previous works.

Imagine being one of several of the most publicized and controversial activists of a generation, presently tried in a courtroom pitted against you. Only a few defendants not restricted from speaking or found in contempt get a chance to give closing arguments for your case. Who will speak? What would they say? Who will listen?

These are the questions that fuel the energetic, politically charged ensemble film The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Focusing on the titular trial of various activists charged by the federal government for conspiracy and inciting a riot, Sorkin creates a sympathetic and timely portrayal of multiple protestors caught in a poignant courtroom circus. The seemingly contradictory blend of courtroom absurdity and serious political gravitas only strengthens Sorkin’s witty and argumentative style.

Sorkin had originally been attached to the film in 2006 after a meeting with Steven Spielberg, then planned to direct. Fourteen years later, The Trial of the Chicago 7 releases in an election year marked by political discourse, Black Lives Matter protests, and a global pandemic. After viewing the film, the film’s release date is evidently purposeful and in conjunction with this year’s presidential election. To Sorkin, the world of the Chicago 7 is remarkably similar in its political landscape to modern times. Archaic authorities reign and the general population is markedly discontent. The Chicago 7 are depicted as aspirational ideals of protest, of defiance against all opposition, unfairness, and disapproval.

The Chicago 7 was an assortment of different men who played pivotal roles in the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film’s main subjects include the clever and charismatic Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the straight-laced and self-serious Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). Their ideological differences and juxtaposing personalities are the basis for the film’s depiction of 1960s counterculture and issues of how protest is limited by the federal government. Culminating in what might be one of the most memorable sequences of the year, the dynamic between Hoffman and Hayden allows Sorkin to depict not only the discourse between the general American population and the anti-war movement in the 1960s but also the disagreement between movement’s parties. The other lead roles include the Chicago 7’s defense lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and the junior prosecution lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt), Hoffman’s Yippie companion Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), and the Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Sorkin explores themes of intergenerational power, protest, and cultural and racial bias in the American legal system, as each of these characters flesh out the world of the Chicago 7. 

Sorkin’s on-screen rendering of the trial is fantastical, despite its real-life roots. The title The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a bit of a misnomer, as eight people were tried before Bobby Seale was released under a separate mistrial verdict. The resulting seven defendants, in addition to William Kunstler, become recurring disruptions within the trial and the subject of contempt by Judge Julius Hoffman. In particular, the dynamic between Judge Hoffman and Abbie Hoffman becomes a focal point in the progression of the trial and the animosity between the defendants and the court (the shared surname becomes a recurring joke and metaphor in the trial). Yet, Sorkin doesn’t shy away from the gloomier injustices surrounding the trial, and the result proves enticingly infuriating.  

Sorkin’s evolution from screenwriter to director is evident throughout the film. The script is clever and lyrical, invoking some of the usual Sorkin witticisms and language. Comparisons can be drawn to previous Sorkin works (The Social Network and A Few Good Men come to mind), but The Trial Of The Chicago 7 does much to differentiate itself from the director’s past works. Sorkin traditionally focuses on exceedingly resourceful and intelligent protagonists, some of which include prominent, real figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Molly Bloom, and how they manipulate the world around them. However, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is largely concerned following a whole generation of protestors dismissed and distanced from the general population. In this case, each comeback and biting retort become both statements of defiance and tools weaponized by authorities. The story is focused on recounting the events leading to defeat and the determined resilience the Chicago 7 have despite of it. The fates of the Chicago 7 were determined before the film began, but the unyielding rebellion against corruption and injustice is their achievement.

The editing (by Alan Baumgarten) is the standout (albeit more noticeable) factor in creating the film’s most memorable moments. Likewise, Shane Valentino’s production design and Susan Lyall’s costume work keep the film feeling visually authentic and lived in. Although this is Sorkin’s second directorial effort (his first being 2017’s Molly’s Game), his proficiency in fast-paced dialogue and creating smart, competing personalities is aptly exhibited. The formation of a sprawling and lively world, inhabited by a movement of young and intertwining dissidents and a government intently ready to arrest them, is a welcome surprise under Sorkin’s directorship.

By the 40 minute mark, Abbie Hoffman proclaims that this is a “political trial.” Though set over fifty years ago, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a universal critique of people who begin change and the entities that oppose them. The film proposes problems of representation: who decides what when a protest is justified? What is right to protest? When do protestors become criminals?  Representation in authority is examined, and those in power are questioned, through cultural, intergenerational, and racial lenses. The relationship between the people and the federal government is observed through the young heroes trying to right national wrongs in a system pitted against them, the judge who dismisses every objection and question posed by the defense, and the federal prosecution lawyers who see the protestors as children throwing tantrums.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an engrossing account of the extent that people with authority will go to stay in power. It is stressing and cathartic, more than enough to keep you watching a not too distant past.