The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yippie-kay-ay Chicago: Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7
Verdict: 
7/10: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is brilliant as a retelling of history, but fails to deliver on the enlightening social commentary it promises.
Release Date: 
Friday, October 16, 2020
Written by: 

Aaron Sorkin transports us back to the anti-war protests of the late 1960s in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

7

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

That famous quote, attributed to Mark Twain, comes to mind as Aaron Sorkin’s latest film The Trial of the Chicago 7 comes to Netflix following a summer in which once more, the whole world has been watching protests and unrest in America.

Its evocative opening scenes, which cut newsreel footage of the tumultuous spring and summer of 1968 with its central characters' plans to protest the Democratic Convention in Chicago, capture the strange sense of urgency of a world running out of control.

The meat of the movie, however, does not take place in the parks or streets of Chicago - where protests against the Vietnam War turned violent due to the behaviour of the police - but in court in a year later where a ragtag group of leading anti-war movement figures face trial on charges of conspiring to incite a riot.

One look at the ‘Chicago 7’ tells you that the charges are overcooked.

Alongside straight-laced Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), sit long-haired ‘Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), while middle-aged conscientious objector (and scout troop leader) David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is feet away from Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the head of the Black Panther Party - an eighth defendant roped in to scare the jury.

Tasked with defending a group of men who can’t agree on a haircut, let alone a defence strategy, is left-wing lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).

As you’d expect from a Sorkin script (he also directs), it sizzles with detail, both real and imagined.

We see the verbal sparring between Hoffman and the presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) - who is at pains to point out he is no relation to his revolutionary namesake.

In scenes showing how an anti-war gathering became a bloody riot, the poet Allen Ginsberg annoys protesters and police alike with his Buddhist chants.

 

A stellar cast, which also includes Michael Keaton and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Sorkin’s skill means that at times the film rattles along despite spending large amounts of time discussing politics and court procedure.

Particularly arresting are the climactic scenes showing the riots as a clash between the old world and new.

Yet at times, despite stars relishing what is very much an actors' movie - featuring more speeches than your average session of the Roman Senate - matters sag.

The reason for this is that the conflict that Sorkin centres on - the might of the U.S. establishment versus idealistic activists - is less interesting than the secondary ones between the defendants.

It’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that history has been kinder to the Chicago 7 than the court.

What’s still a live issue is the clash between their approaches and their efficacy in achieving progressive aims.

The battle between Redmayne’s Hayden, who believes in working within the system, and Baron Cohen’s Hoffman, who plays the anti-establishment clown but has hidden depths and purpose, provides the most dramatic moments - but too often they are underexplored.

The difference between what drives Seale’s desire for change as a Black man and his white contemporaries' motivations makes for more climactic drama, but are buried in brief scenes or dealt with off-screen.

All this means is that while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a genuinely entertaining retelling of history, it does not quite provide the profound social commentary it provides glimpses of.

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