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Film Review: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is Essential Viewing for 2020 and a Blistering Courtroom Drama

Netflix
Netflix

There’s a line towards the end of Aaron Sorkin‘s The Trial of the Chicago 7, spoken by Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Abbie Hoffman, that should be in every single Joe Biden ad until the election. I won’t spoil what it is, but when you see the film, you’ll know what it is. You absolutely need to see this movie, too, since it’s not just essential and timely, but one of 2020’s crowning achievements as well. Netflix was smart to acquire this one earlier in the year, and even smarter to make sure this hits their service before the United States heads to the polls in November to vote. The work is an urgent call to action, as well as a warning about what those in power can attempt to do to those who speak out on injustice.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 represents a brilliant example of what cinema can do. A period piece that’s just as vital today, and arguably far more so than it was when it went into production, it speaks to the fight for the soul of America that constantly goes on. The 1960s were a turbulent time in the U.S. and the 2020’s are shaping up to be similarly volatile. Sorkin’s ability to capture that is part of what makes it a feature that will stand the test of time, as well as potentially even impacting where the nation goes in the future.

Even beyond its status as a top-tier Academy Award player, this is just a nearly perfectly crafted film. Go figure, Sorkin can do a courtroom drama. Far different from A Few Good Men, it’s still just as blistering a legal drama, even based heavily on historical fact (Sorkin used the actual transcript of the proceedings as the basis for his dialogue in court). The ability to anger, educate, entertain, and inspire here is truly something to take note of.

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Set in 1968, 1969, and 1970, this is the story of the Chicago 7, a group of protesters arrested in the aftermath of the riots during the Democratic National Convention. The 1968 riots caught the attention of the nation, as well as the ire of the incoming Nixon Administration, with Attorney General John N. Mitchell (John Doman) taking the lead in retribution. Tasking U.S. Attorney Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with the prosecution. The former is eager, while the latter senses an unnecessary circus. He’s quickly proven correct in his presumption.

Brought to trial are actually eight men, from different circles. There’s Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) from the Youth International Party (or “Yippies”). There’s Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) from the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), with the rest of the seven consisting of Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). They’re being defended by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), with an assist from Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankman). Also present is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panthers, though his attorney is not present and he’s consistently prevented from defending himself by the cruel, one-sided, and potentially senile Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

As the trial progresses, it becomes clear that no one involved, minus the defendants, is interested in the truth or what actually happened. They’re just symbols, meant to be punished and made an example of. Seale is repeatedly pre-judged by Judge Hoffman, while Kunstler is constantly put at a disadvantage, with the court clearly favoring Schultz’s prosecution. An opportunity presents itself, involving former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), but when the government wants to make a statement by locking you up, can anything be done? Flashing back and forth between the lead-up to the protests, the riot, and the trial itself, there’s a clear sense that what happened then can still happen now, shamefully.

From top to bottom, this is an impeccably acted film. Everyone will walk away with a different favorite cast member, which is a testament to how willing they all are to share the screen and let each other shine. Whether it’s the shenanigans of Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong (Baron Cohen has never been better), the dedication of Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance (Rylance in particular is perfectly cast), the earnestness of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or the fury of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, everyone is truly wonderful. Even Frank Langella is aces as the vile Judge. In addition to the top-tier cast members, there’s also small yet vital supporting roles for the likes of Caitlin Fitzgerald, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and more, besides those mentioned like John Carroll Lynch. Then, there’s Michael Keaton, who only has two scenes, but one of them includes the single best moment in the film. No one is anything short of great, though Abdul-Mateen II, Baron Cohen, and Rylance left the biggest impression on me, followed by Keaton and Redmayne.

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It’s not secret that Aaron Sorkin is one of the great writers in Hollywood, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 cements him as a top notch director as well. The editing on display here is the finest of the year, with Alan Baumgarten expertly cutting between the various strands of the story. Sorkin is a confident filmmaker here, trusting that his script is rock-solid and diving in as a fluid director. His storytelling here is vibrant, looking back and forth between narratives and characters with precision. This is Sorkin at the height of his craft.

The visuals from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael are terrific, as well, as is the score from Daniel Pemberton. Anyone who thought Sorkin was still a work in progress behind the camera with his directorial debut Molly’s Game will have a much different take here. Baumgarten, Papamichael, and Pemberton give Sorkin the technical tools to pair with his always reliably strong writing, assured direction, and top notch cast. The results speak for themselves.

You won’t find a timelier movie than this one. Just turn on the news and that much is clear. By looking part on this wild period in history, as well as showing what a paranoid President and his corrupt administration was willing to do, it should shake all citizens to their core. What happened then can happen again. Sorkin and company are determined to hammer that home, and the fact that they can do so without preaching and while crafting an audience and awards-friendly picture is worthy of massive acclaim.

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Awards wise, this is an across the board contender. More will be written about it in a specific Oscar season piece, but it’s impossible not to mention that this is almost assuredly a nominee for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (for Sorkin) at the Academy Awards, plus whomever voters choose out of the cast for Best Supporting Actor (Baron Cohen and Redmayne are the safe bets, for now). Moreover, Sorkin in Best Director, as well as Best Film Editing, have to be on the table. It’s a threat to win in many of these categories, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a magnificent film. More than that, however, it’s an important one. A chant within the movie is that “the whole world is watching.” Well, the whole should be watching when Netflix releases this one on their streaming platform October 16th.

SCORE: ★★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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