" assertive and impassioned piece of political theater"

Sorkin's 7 Packs the Court With Top Notch Acting

(102420) The main takeaway of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now streaming on Netflix) is that the trial against eight (later seven) leaders of left-wing activist groups never should have happened. Indeed, that's also the main takeaway of the case's judicial history, but still, the trial did occur. The country had to grapple with it at the time, and we still have to grapple with it now. Maybe we'd be in a better position now, if only people had done a better job learning the obvious lessons of the trial at the time.

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin certainly wants to make a point with this film—several points, in fact, about the freedoms of speech and assembly, government overreach to stifle those rights, how certain government officials will use or abuse their power to silence those with whom they disagree or who appear a threat to that power, and some obvious flaws in the judicial system. At its heart, perhaps, is the long-standing (and still ongoing) fear of leftist politics that espouse real change, more in line with the promise and theoretical foundation of this country, which makes certain people very uncomfortable for an assortment of political, ideological, and some far less rational reasons (racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.).

Some will look at this film as political grandstanding on Sorkin's part, and that's certainly true. What other approach, though, could he possibly take with this material? It's intrinsically political. It's inherently about grandstanding—from the various activists with their distinct approaches to politics, from a newly elected President and his recently appointed officials with an agenda and some personal grudges in mind, from the attorneys with their knowledge of how the law should work and frustration with seeing it molested so publicly, and even from the judge with an obviously prejudicial perspective and the willingness to act upon it.

The actual trial, we see repeatedly throughout the film, became an act of political theater. Sorkin's screenplay dives into and fully embraces that idea—while actually somewhat diminishing that quality from the real trial, lest anyone accuse him of heightening the atmosphere, the stakes, and the conflict of this story.

The scene stealer of the trial-as-a-show, perhaps, was Abbie Hoffman, the rather radical co-leader of the Youth International Party, nicknamed the "Yippies." Here, he's played by Sacha Baron Cohen, just one of the big names in this pristinely cast ensemble, performing their roles with equal parts sincerity and gusto. At one point, the judge (played by Frank Langella, in a scathing, frightening portrayal of a dangerous combination of judicial malfeasance and possible senility) interrupts the government prosecutor's opening statement to point out that, while they may share the same surname, he has no familial relationship to the defendant. In response, Hoffman certainly did call out, as the character does in the film, "Dad, have you forsaken me?"
The real Hoffman—the defendant—also stated that the other Hoffman—the judge—"would have served Hitler better." That's not in the film, but the moment when Abbie and Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) wear judge's robes over Chicago police uniforms also happened in reality. It was a show trial, so why shouldn't these guys reveal it to be such in performative ways?

The major defendants in the trial, following the protests/riots/uprising during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon, include other activist leaders against the war in Vietnam: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panthers, who had no connection to any of the other defendants. Along with two others (whom the government tried to be acquitted, making it easier for the jury to convict the others), the Chicago Eight, as they were initially called, were charged with federal crimes of conspiracy and crossing state lines in order to incite a riot.

After a brief but breezily thorough introduction to the major players and the enlistment of Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to prosecute an overtly political case for the government, Sorkin begins the story proper with the trial and keeps that proceeding in the narrative's present tense. That decision is simply and subtly ingenious. We watch the trial, alternately amused and stunned by its various and respective outbursts and abuses, with only limited information of what actually happened during the protests and the riots that eventually erupted.

In this way, Sorkin maintains the focus on the theater of the trial, as the humorous interjections from Abbie and Jerry gradually evolve, over the course of five months, into infuriating instances of un-Constitutional horror. Bobby's attorney remains absent, following surgery (Mark Rylance plays the lead attorney for the others). Even so, the judge insists that the case against him proceed.

At the height of this legally prejudicial and racially discriminatory abuse, the judge orders Bobby to be taken from the courtroom and be treated "as he should be." The result is shocking (In the film, the issue is addressed immediately, but in reality, it wasn't rectified for days, which makes it even more maddening), and for a terrifying piece of trivia, the judge's actions are technically part of still-standing legal precedent.
With the trial serving as the story's central focus (featuring plenty of twists and turns, as well as surprise witness/cameo in the person of Michael Keaton), Sorkin allows the events leading up to and of the protests and riots to play out as a kind of mystery. Testimonies, on the stand (from a lot of undercover police officers and federal agents, leading Jerry half-jokingly to ponder if the seven of them were leading 10,000 cops) and in the "conspiracy headquarters" and the stage (Abbie continues to do presentations at colleges at night), and flashbacks incrementally fill in the blanks of what happened. Sorkin comes to a distinct conclusion on the causes and culprits of the violence, but his case, unlike the government's in the story and history, is backed up with actual evidence.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 clearly and convincingly presents all of its arguments, its political debates, and, above all else, its outrage. The film is exactly what it needs to be—an assertive and impassioned piece of political theater.

Directed & Written by:    Aaron Sorkin
Starring:    Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen
Released:    101620 on Netflix
Length:    129 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use

TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 © 2020 Dreamworks Pictures
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.