I’m a sucker for a good biopic, especially one that’s of topical interest, and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” certainly did not let me down.
Dramatizing the botched trial of the Chicago 7 and Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the film is particularly relevant in 2020, in which peaceful protests have dotted the national against police brutality, some of which have turned into riots thanks to police instigation. The Chicago 7 were organizers from different advocacy organizations who sought to protest the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but their demonstrations were repeatedly denied permits and blocked by the city’s Mayor, Richard Daley, who went out of his way to use the police to antagonize and demonize the protesters.
I will never understand why politicians think it’s a good idea to intimidate protesters in America, especially by abusing their positions of power to use the police to incite violence — rather than fear government, America is one of the few nations on Earth where its citizens have the means to push back even harder. It only escalates the situation, not to mention the fact that if you feel like you have to resort to these tactics, you’re already on the losing side of whatever’s being protested.
But in 1968 this seemed foreign to Mayor Daley and the incoming administration of President Richard Nixon, who would blame the protestors for starting riots in Chicago, even though the previous Justice Department found that the Chicago Police had started them, because the Nixon administration was famously paranoid and felt like it had to act like a strongman to keep public support.
The Chicago 7 include Students for Democratic Society (SDS) leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); Youth International Party (Yippies) leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); Mobilization to end war (MOBE) leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Representing them in the film is attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), and prosecuting them is Federal Prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordan-Levitt). Overseeing the trial is controversial Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
This film has a lot of top-shelf talent for a Netflix film, and with so many big names, you might (correctly) assume it’s hard for everyone to stand out. Redmayne and Baron Cohen have breakout performances on behalf of the 7, though Abdul-Mateen II is also great as Bobby Seale, who has a particularly hard time with Judge Hoffman, who unprofessionally disregards his wishes to delay trial due to his lawyer being sick, and at one point has Seale publicly gagged.
Langella puts in a great performance as Judge Hoffman, who by any metric should not have overseen this case, as he has a profound inability to control his own courtroom and reeks of corruption. Publicly gagging a Black man in an American court should have been the end of the trial, and the film goes into depth how he disallowed former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) from testifying after he revealed the actual evidence against the 7 was flimsy at best. Langella masterfully portrays Judge Hoffman as an ignorant, corrupt white man who freely manipulates court proceedings to serve his own agenda, and he is greatly arrogant, which eventually leads to every sentence he gives out during the trial being overturned on appeal. It’s hard to view the trial as anything more than a politically-motivated circus, especially if your only frame of reference of these events is through this film.
Redmayne’s Hayden is often the de facto leader of the group, as he’s the only one other than Kunstler that understands that, while their activism must have an impact, they must abide by the confines of the law and survive the trial in order to continue their work. He draws a sharp contrast to Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman), who advocates more for a loose social revolution than one of concrete policy, and as such, he is deeply counterculture.
Hoffman believes the trial is rigged, and the only way to win is by subverting cultural norms, whereas Hayden is more of a pragmatist. Hoffman is also a lot more extreme than Hayden, and it’s alluded to that his warning of “public fornication” and rock and roll when applying for a protest permit ruined it for the other groups, as the city lumped them all together. But Hoffman also has a few brilliant moments, particularly when he is on the stand, and Baron Cohen shines beautifully in these moments, portraying Hoffman as a keen intellectual. While known for his more bizarre roles, he has a lot of talent as a dramatic actor when he’s allowed to be serious, and for a few moments, Sorkin allows him to unleash that side of him, and he kills it.
Rylance is also great as Kunstler, who sees them through the trial and even gets a few absurd contempt of court charges by speaking out against Judge Hoffman’s practices. Rylance breathes a lot of personality into Kunstler, and is one of the most likeable characters in the film as unlike any other character in the film, he understands what the 7 were doing and why it was important, but also knows how outsiders view them, and how they’ll have to practically navigate the law.
This is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s a welcome addition to 2020’s measly filmography. This project was in development for a long time — Sorkin originally wrote the film’s first draft in 2007 — and it shows. The film, which clocks in at 130 minutes, takes a deep enough dive at its subject matter for the film to make logical sense, but it doesn’t dive deep enough to leave any meaningful impact other than to highlight how absurd the whole situation was.
This is a perfectly average biopic relevant to today’s trying times in America, and it documents an important historical event in this nation. I’d recommend it, as it is dramatic and insightful, but is by no means Earth-shatteringly good.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” gets a 7.5/10