The Trial of the Chicago 7

Democratic Society (SDS) headed by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin ('Succession's' Jeremy Strong) leading the Yippies (The Youth International Party),  long time conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) with The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, "Aquaman") among others.  When their anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention turned violent, these men, along with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), would be charged with conspiracy to incite a riot during “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Laura's Review: A-

Talk about history repeating itself!  This momentous cultural event from the end of the turbulent 60’s is apt to floor those unfamiliar with the case given the uncanny similarities with events today with a corrupt Attorney General (John Doman’s John Mitchell) aiming a political hit job against liberal activists after his predecessor had determined the riots were actually begun by the Chicago PD who had taken off their identifying badges (there’s more like this, much more).  Writer/director Aaron Sorkin ("Molly's Game"), the writer of TV’s Utopian presidential administration, ‘The West Wing,’ may sometimes lean a little too sympathetically towards his subjects (was the F.B.I.’s prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) really that simpatico with the defendants?), but the revolutionary spirit and Nixonian oppression of the times come through loud and clear.

After a montage establishing the horrible unrest that would see both MLK and RFK assassinated and introducing the main players, Sorkin lands us in Mitchell’s office with Schultz and his superior Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) being tasked with nailing the defendants, a troubled Schultz pushing back to no avail.   Editor Alan Baumgarten ("Molly's Game") confuses as he initially establishes Sorkin’s flashback structure, jerking us from a Hayden planning session right into the trial, but once testimony begins everything falls into riveting place.

Right off the bat, defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) establishes the stonewalling both Hayden and Hoffman received trying multiple times to get a legal permit for peaceful demonstrations, both groups they represent responsible enough to realize the danger in not having an established place to gather.  But he’s dealing with a real piece of work in Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a man who seems unable to remember anyone’s name nor to acknowledge that Seale’s attorney is laid up in the hospital, it having made sense for Seale to have separate representation, his having been thrown in with the group the Government’s idea of making them seem more threatening (Seale was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention and had never even met the other men).  Then there is the internal conflict among the defendants, Hayden’s method of trying to work within the system clashing with Hoffman’s more flippant cultural revolution (and insistence that the trial is neither civil nor criminal, but political).

The film features a dynamic, sprawling ensemble, one of the best of the year.  Langella’s judge is provocatively maddening using his authority to outrageously flout the law (we learn in closing credits his character was later rated ‘Unqualified’) just as Rylance harnesses his rage going up against him.  Redmayne is surprisingly good as the more ‘establishment’ Hayden, his serious mien in stark contrast to Baron Cohen’s comic twinkle – the two share one of the film’s best scenes as Hoffman leads Hayden to see how semantics caused his public outburst to be read as inciting.  Abdul-Mateen II is powerful as the subjugated Seale, his outburst on the execution of Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) stirring, his gagged and shackled return to the court sickening.  Gordon-Levitt is the film’s disturbed conscience.  Caitlin FitzGerald, too, is sympathetic to the men she has been assigned to entrap as many undercover F.B.I. agents were, Strong’s Rubin incensed, in one of the film’s more fanciful moments, at having fallen for her.  Michael Keaton pops up mid-film as a forceful surprise witness not allowed to speak at trial by Judge Hoffman.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael ("Ford v Ferrari") mostly sticks to a drab olive/brown/gold palette, both his camera and color scheme livening for all too real recreations of violence.  Sorkin also switches things up with locations such as Kunstler’s shabby academic home base where the phone is ironically answered by a young woman with ‘Conspiracy Office’ and television interviews with the defendants.  Sorkin wraps wisely with a defiant and rousing bit of in court patriotism before tying up loose ends with closing graphics.

Robin's Review: A-

In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging, the US was being torn apart by political division and strife and the controversial Democratic National Convention was underway in Chicago. If you know anything about our modern history, that gathering did not go well and seven of the protesters were brought before the court for “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Uber-scripter Aaron Sorkin makes his second foray helming the camera with a detailed, straightforward and fair depiction of that volatile period in America’s history. He assembles an all-star ensemble cast of heavy hitters from both drama and comedy to fill the many character roles. It is almost an embarrassment of acting riches.

If you remember that time of strife – I do, I was as a teenager, then, facing the draft and a crazy, unnecessary war – it was, well, remarkably like our current time of division and strife. The country was divided between the right and left and the right, which would get worse under the fast-approaching Nixon presidency, was in charge. Again, much as we live now.

Sorkin, using flash back and flash forward during the course of the trial of the seven defendants – Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) – and succinctly lays out the violence, police provoked and perpetrated, during that notorious Democratic Convention.

The seven celebrity defendants are joined by a bevy of character actors playing all the parts in this remarkable historic tapestry. To name just a few includes the controversial judge presiding, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, suitably chewing scenery), prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon Levitt), defense lawyers William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) and former attorney general Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). And, there are many more characters participating in this slice of Americana.

Director Sorkin marshals his talented forces to give us an honest portrayal of both events that lead to the trial, juxtaposing the riotous behavior inside the convention by its participants with the real riots, outside, caused by Mayor Richard Daily and his Gestapo-like tactics to deny and break up peaceful protests.

The filmmakers, working from Sorkin’s detailed script, do their homework and capture the nuance, tension and humor of the trial – Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman face offs with Judge Hoffman are both funny and true. But, they also, through dramatic recreation and archival footage of the events taking place outside the convention center, depict the violence imposed by the police on peaceful protesters.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” accomplishes two things. It is a solid and detailed chronicle of the troubled summer in Chicago that proved a turning point in our country’s history. And, if you do not pay attention to that history, you are destined to repeat it. Aaron Sorkin’s timely screenplay strikingly points out the parallel of then and now.