Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men”) creates yet another incredibly gripping and captivating story based upon the catastrophic events in Chicago in 1968 with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” With an all-star cast including Eddie Redmayne, Sasha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance and many more, Sorkin takes us along the political and racial journey of nearly 50 years ago, bringing it to life and making it resonate in today’s world.
With Sorkin-esque style, we are introduced to the characters one by one just days before the 1968 Democratic National Convention was to begin near Grant Park in Chicago. Each of the key figures in this story has a unique reason for going to protest, and each has a different response to the dangers that may lie ahead. But never did any of them consider the possible turmoil that would soon unfold nor the dire straights in which they would find themselves as they defended their actions to a corrupt judge and court proceeding.
Sorkin seamlessly edits each individual’s story and then stitches it back together allowing us to see the grand picture. Taking us into the White House, we are privy to the turmoil of the changing of the guard as John Mitchell (John Doman) expresses his grievances and direction to the newly charged head counsel Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt), a by-the-book lawyer. Quickly cutting across the nation, we meet Tom Hayden (Redmayne) and Rennie Davis, political activists of the Students for a Democratic Society, “counter-culture Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), MOBE organizer and Boy Scott leader, Dellinger’s cohorts John Froines and Lees Weiner, and Bobby Seal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the Black Panthers Party Chairman. Sorkin’s script takes us inside these men’s lives briefly, but meaningfully, to understand their personalities and their motivations for demonstrating in Chicago.
It’s when all of these men and their respective followers among many others who congregated during the pivotal days leading to their arrest that the tension builds like a rumbling volcano. We know historically what’s going to happen, but this film brings us into a personal level as we witness the brutality of the police and the consequences the protesters suffer.
The first half of the film gives us all the educational aspects of how these eight men (the number seven is explained later) were targeted, arrested and now put on trial as a group for “conspiring to incite a riot outside the Democratic Convention.” The second half of the film is set in the courthouse as the corrupt and racist Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) sets the cringe-worthy and at times devastating tone for the remainder of the film.
Again, editing is key in telling this elaborately detailed story and Sorkin expertly utilizes this element as we flash back in time to crucial events or to Abbie Hoffman’s comedy show. We see the behind the scenes actions and watch Abbie recount the confounding events which took place in court that week. His perspective throws an ironically humorous spin but never discounts the harsh realities of what has happened. And pacing is never an issue in this over two-hour film as we are kept on the edge of our seats needing and wanting to know what happens next even if we are already familiar with the story. There’s not a wasted scene, character, or piece of dialogue in this film— all of it necessary to accurately tell this intricately layered story with painstaking precision.
Of course, the script cannot stand alone and this all-star cast of actors passionately create personalities to bring it to life. The actors, all perfectly cast as their characters, each have their own moment to shine, but not one actor is the star. Supporting one another, we get the sense that they are there to solely tell a story, an important and still relevant one today. Rylance finds an understated tone to deliver a remarkable performance and Baron Cohen couldn’t have channeled the personality with the sarcastic wit and the intelligence of Abbie Hoffman any better. The subtle and nuanced performance of both Redmayne and Gordon-Levitt create authentic characters who tap into their moral compass for direction and Langella gives us a disturbingly haunting performance of a lifetime.
While the actors all shine, it’s the story that hits home particularly in our volatile political world today. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth and the heartbreaking injustices of the ’60’s. The scene with Bobby Seale in the courtroom, bound and gagged as a punishment for invoking his constitutional rights is simply gutting. Recalling this scene as I write this brings me to tears.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of the best films of the year and may be one of Sorkin’s best of all time. His vision and direction has created a brilliantly timeless and extraordinarily entertaining story that unfortunately mirrors the unrest and inequities of today.
Streaming on Netflix Friday, October 16, 2020.