Trial of the Chicago 7, Snapshot of the Culture Wars

The older you get, the more you realize how true the adage of “history repeats itself.” You realize it’s no longer just a pithy catchphrase but a reality of life as we know it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 was clearly intended, to some extent, to echo the trials and tribulations of the present. Little did Sorkin and co. know just how relevant their 1960’s period drama would turn out to be. Chicago 7 is both a classical Sorkin courtroom drama, focused on the thrilling broad strokes of such a monumental case, and a protest film designed to show us the moving chess pieces of an ongoing, decades-long culture war between the conservative right and two factions of the left: the progressive revolutionaries like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), focused on change through disruption, and the pragmatic Democrats like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), focused on change through winning elections. 

Revolving around a clash between protestors and police that took place outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the trial was the result of blatant entrapment by local authorities and represented a circumvention of free speech laws by the newly appointed Nixon administration. Lead prosecutor Richard Shultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is directly ordered by a fuming Attorney General in Nixon’s right-hand man John Mitchell to make certain they win and the charges of conspiracy stick, primarily as retribution for a mild case of professional embarrassment at the hands of LBJ’s outgoing Attorney General Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton). As the intuitive progressives continually argue to Hayden and their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), this is a political trial meant to dissuade future dissent over the war and in culture generally, a petty middle finger to the previous administration, and a racist witch hunt all in one hand. It’s all frighteningly familiar if you’ve been paying attention for the last four years. 

Among others, the defendants are Hoffman, Hayden, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), a Black Panther wrongly accused of murder, a man who’s never met any of the aforementioned white hippies. They’ve been lobbed together to make all of them look more dangerous. They’re embroiled in a trial whose outcome has seemingly been decided for them, been decided before the jury can even render a verdict, as incorrigible judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is clearly siding with the prosecution every step of the way, even refusing to allow Seale legal representation out of either prejudice, sheer incompetence, or both. Watching such illegal and unjust proceedings unfold will illicit righteous anger in any moral audience, a setup for Sorkin’s rousing if patently sentimental finale. 

Sorkin proves he’s quietly, slowly improving as a filmmaker. We all know his mastery of dialogue, words which flow like musical lyrics, but his command of meaningful, galvanizing editing has gone mostly unsung. It was noticeable in Molly’s Game, and it’s a tour de force in Trial of the Chicago 7, an essential tool here in conveying the scope of the story, the scope of history. He still has far to go in the way of pure cinema, so far lacking an ability to tell stories with images or a confidence in moving his camera around a room and around his characters. Regardless, this is a courtroom drama, and as such it’s not often in need of such cinematic fussiness. As is often the case with Sorkin, the searing language is the language, and that’s just fine. 

His screenplay will undoubtedly garner a nomination, particularly in a year as handicapped as 2020. However, the big question heading in was who among its sprawling cast would stand out. The answer is nearly every one of them, as the script is made for monologues and many stand-up-and-cheer moments. As expected, Sacha Baron Cohen is a lively, entertaining presence as sardonic jokester Abbie Hoffman. He and Strong make a funny pair of miscreants, sending up the courtroom happenings with satirical banter and informal sidebars. Eddie Redmayne is well cast as the upstanding, well-dressed Hayden who is clearly smarter if not wiser than his hippie comrades. The most fascinating subplot is the ideological friction between Hoffman and Hayden, a tension arising out of passion. They both want societal change, they simply disagree on the best way of fostering it, not at all dissimilar from the wayward schisms existing on the left today. 

Those on the side of the prosecution have a moment or two in the sun, Gordon-Levitt and Langella doing their best to shore up slightly underwritten villains with unspoken histories respectively, and yet it’s two performers I’ve previously been unimpressed with who impressed me the most. Yahya Abdul-Mateen made a terrible first impression on me when he gave a rather robotic performance as Black Manta in DC’s Aquaman, only to follow it up with revelatory, Emmy-winning work as Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s Watchmen and now this, a fiery piss-and-vinegar turn as a man at the end of his rope and facing his oppressors head-on. His Bobby Seale is the angriest and most sympathetic person on screen, his seething rage palpable and relatable in this new age of racial tensions in America. 

By the same token, I was never sold on the overdue veteran status of Mark Rylance heading into the 2016 Oscars. Here was an actor I had never seen before, a man of the stage with much respect from his peers and no recollection from me. His performance never rang as undeniable and therefore I chafed at the runaway train that was his role in Bridge of Spies. Five years and three scene-stealing turns later and I’m sold. His Kunstler is an apathetic defender until the lights come on and suddenly he discovers just what he and his clients are up against: an unfair justice system and an irredeemably corrupt administration shifting its weight on the levers of power. Outside of Seale, the most powerful moments of Chicago 7 belong to Rylance and his growing rebellion in the face of unending injustice, all culminating in a defiance of Judge Hoffman that sounds more like a roar than a simple refutation. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an urgent, entertaining call to arms against the injustices of American authoritarianism, and a call for peace between opposing left-wing points of view. It’s about right-wing reactionary movements and administrations whose eventual circumvention of democracy and free speech is always borne of moral and political failure. When the tide of history begins turning away from them, from their ideals or lack thereof, they turn to lying, cheating, and other forms of anti-democratic thumbing of norms in order to win by any means necessary. Watching these characters try to cobble together a successful defense is like watching the Democratic Party try to cobble together a successful offense in 2020. From afar, it can seem like an impossible task when the other side is no longer playing by the rules we all agreed to by law. No matter the insistence of these long-term devils, issues that have plagued us for decades, if the outcome of this trial and of recent history is anything to go by then by no means is the battle ever lost. 

Grade: A- 

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