The Trial of the Chicago 7, 2020.
Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin.
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Max Adler, Ben Shenkman, Jeffrey Scott Basham, Alice Kremelberg, Kate Miller, Kathleen Garrett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., William Hurt, J. C. MacKenzie, John Doman, Mike Geraghty, Caitlin Fitzgerald, John Quilty, Michael A. Dean, Meghan Rafferty, Brady Jenness, Steve Routman, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Wayne Duvall, Jeremy Sumpter, C.J. Wilson, Rory Cochrane, and Damian Young.
The story of 7 people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
There are a startling amount of US citizens who either willfully or ignorantly prop up the idea of ‘peaceful protesting’ without, again either refusing to acknowledge or legitimately being unaware that Martin Luther King advocated in such a way and was assassinated anyway. And it’s not just him, as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, delivering a performance loaded with dignified defiance facing one injustice after another) reminds us of Jesus, Malcolm X., and others during a hip opening montage establishing the defendants of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (technically eight members but I will leave that to you watch play out) and who they represent as they plan on crossing over into Chicago to protest the Vietnam War during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Whether a revolution requires violence is definitely a debate worth having, but perhaps the wrong question to be asking if we look into how the violence is happening.
Uncannily similar to current events, the political activists and Chicago Police Department get into a scuffle or two resulting in bloodshed and arrests. It’s important to note that these explosive sequences are brilliantly woven into the courtroom drama, maximizing emphasis while also doling out plot details in a logical and progressive way. Rather than going for a sweeping emotional score, Daniel Pemberton has been employed to go with something harder and intense that gets the adrenaline rushing in strong contrast to the bad blood boiling over between these two groups.
These men are not just fighting off a 10-year sentence, they are defending themselves inside a courtroom battle that has unjustly been made political (something we briefly learn more about during the introduction.) Additionally, there has been legal corruption every step of the way before violence actually erupted, which is not only horrifying but where the righteous anger comes from. As weeks turn into months, the trial intentionally becomes more and more infuriating, as it’s essentially a systemic fix and means for oppression. They even lump Bobby Seale together with the 7 just to make the rest of them appear more dangerous and likely to incite chaos.
“The world will be watching” is repeatedly touted by activists as a rallying cry of sorts, and the world does need to watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 but not just for that mirror reflection of 1968 and our present-day political landscape.rather for those that think anything about the justice system is just. Important movements are regularly co-opted by those willing to damage the reputation of the protesters, those who choose to further suffocate others, and here (despite numerous small jumps forward in time) there is an urgent study of that. This mostly comes in the form of Judge Julius Hoffman (a detestable, impartial, and racist Frank Langella) who blatantly disregards key information and appears to have it out for the defendants from day one. Extraordinarily, none of it feels fake or far-fetched, which is a testament to writer/Aaron Sorkin absolutely on fire here, revisiting his courtroom drama A Few Good Men roots and crafting a Molotov cocktail for the moment in cinematic form.
Some of the major players here involve Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden (a member of the Students for a Democratic Society organization), Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman (no relation to the judge, more of a stoner hippie and part of a youth organization also representing the radical left), and a World War II conscientious objector advocating through pacifism, Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch.) Naturally, their ideologies clash in ways that seem destined to tear them apart and unravel their collective chance of defending themselves. You could go as far as saying they don’t even like each other despite wanting the same things, which feels like something that could be said of the left today. Nevertheless, it all leads to an incendiary verbal argument between Tom and Abbie, doubling as a scene that could be used for both of them should they justifiably receive Oscar nominations for however they campaign.
Everyone seems to be on a different page when it comes to how the trial should play out in the public eye, with Mark Rylance’s lawyer William Kunstler keeping the order while simultaneously fending off corruption from every angle. The more we see about the lengths parties including the FBI were willing to go to paint these advocates in a specific negative light, the anger amplifies. Mark Rylance brings a fiery passion to his cross-examinations as he’s warring with crooked judges, morally compromised but empathetic opposition in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and outrage demanding basic human rights as Bobby Seale, who doesn’t even have a lawyer present, is subjected to constant demeaning and humiliation. Furthermore, if you think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a glorified background character, think again, as some of his exchanges with Mark Rylance are some of the most heated in the entire film.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is undeniably an actor’s showcase, but I also can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that had this many awards-worthy performances, even if they will most likely eat each other alive come Oscar season. It would also be a disservice to say the film is only about the acting, as Aaron Sorkin (working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) captures the courtroom drama with electricity and the violence with horrifying albeit striking clarity and pain. Again, it’s Daniel Pemberton’s score that is may as well be thunder, heightening every beat of suspense. 900 words in and I haven’t even got the chance to mention Michael Keaton also shows up for a strong supporting turn and that Sacha Baron Cohen actually gets to be quite funny in the movie while demonstrating his excellent dramatic skill.
This is masterclass work in every aspect of filmmaking, compelling from the opening frame, and a scintillating study of politics that breathes life into every major character. After Molly’s Game, if you had any doubts that Aaron Sorkin the director was incapable of living up to his screenwriting counterpart, The Trial of the Chicago 7 obliterates concern. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t fire on all cylinders here, he’s firing on a rocket.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com