There’s no mistaking the fact that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an Aaron Sorkin film. From the dialogue-heavy script to the wry and witty banter, Sorkin brings his style to a fictionalized film based on real events. But even as the speeches soar and the direction seamlessly flows between the courtroom drama and the events which led to it, The Trial of the Chicago 7 softens the edges of a harsher reality.
To believe that the last four years play out as an isolated incident is to blatantly ignore U.S. history and what has led us to this moment. It’s why we can draw so many comparisons to the 1960s — with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, protests against the Vietnam War, and general divisiveness across the board coming together as a reflection of our present landscape.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based on the seven defendants — Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) — who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite riots during the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
The trial lasted for six months and, while the defendants approached protesting differently, they were all against the war in Vietnam and that was at the forefront of their protests against a government who would rather they remain silent on the matter, using police force and violence to definitively put a stop to their actions and subsequently paint them as guilty. It sounds eerily familiar because it is wholeheartedly relevant to current affairs.
Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 understands that this event in history has never been more relevant, with the federal government attempting to stymie the rights of protestors and silence their freedom of speech through policing and respectability politics. This isn’t your average courtroom drama and Sorkin cleverly intercuts scenes from the film’s reenactments with footage from the real-life protests. Most of the film’s drama unfolds through conversation, though Sorkin’s strengths are more in debate than in delivering meaningful commentary.
That’s what the themes of the film essentially do, but they’re overshadowed by Sorkin’s attempts to ease up the conservatism of Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is cast in a more favorable light despite his obvious opposition to the defendants’ actions. However, the most glaring issue with the film is its handling of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
Bobby is lumped in with the other seven because he happened to be in Chicago for a few hours on the same day. As the courtroom drama unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is racist. He denies Bobby the right of counsel and doesn’t allow him to represent himself in trial. Things come to blows when Bobby is gagged and bound to a chair in the courtroom.
While this actually happened, Bobby was bound for days before he was let go and his trial separated from the Chicago 7. Abdul-Mateen II disappears midway through the movie and his presence, despite the actor giving a fantastic performance, feels more like it was tacked on and not given the focus that the remaining defendants received. That oversight makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 feel a lot less relevant as it barely brushed the surface of Bobby’s backstory, the Black Panthers, and the way race is handled in the film.
Another one of Sorkin’s flaws is that he believes that our democracy is a good one, but simply run by corrupt people. Cohen’s character even brings up this idea in the film. On the contrary, our democractic foundations were built on ideals that ultimately upheld those in power (land owners, white men, etc.) and silenced anyone who attempted to rise up against its rules and unfairness. What’s somewhat frustrating is that Sorkin makes a show of giving conservative thinkers like Schultz the benefit of the doubt, that their minds may be swayed by passionate speeches and the innate need to do what’s right despite efforts to the contrary.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is ultimately entertaining and timely, boasted by an incredible ensemble cast (including the talented Mark Rylance). Redmayne’s closing remarks will be enough to make an emotional impression on any viewer. That said, while the film can soar to great and powerful heights, it trades in a more scathing exploration of police, government tactics, and race to achieve a more idealistic story.