Released 2020. Director: Aaron Sorkin
"THERE ARE CIVIL TRIALS AND THERE ARE CRIMINAL TRIALS. THERE IS no such thing as a political trial.” So says William Kunstler, defense counsel for the eight – you read correctly, eight, not seven – men charged with conspiracy and inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The eight men include Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, co-founders of the Youth International Party (Yippie) and Bobby Seale from the Black Panther Party.
Kunstler’s remark is in response to Abbie Hoffman’s comments that the trial, which eventually runs for five months, is political. One thing is clear, The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is more political than historical or ideological.
The movie is timed for release right at this juncture when America faces the most consequential presidential election in a long time. Sorkin expertly pieces together facts and creative liberties to aim for a rousing crescendo of moral victory. We see parallels to the present as civil rights, race relations and police brutality remain headlines today, fifty years after the trial.
An energetic opening sequence quickly introduces the principal characters, edited to hit the beats in Sorkin’s script before settling into a courtroom drama interspersed with flashbacks. Amidst arguments and questioning, at times calm, at times heated, we see scenes of protests, busloads of young people marching and waving flags, riot police clashing with the crowd, firing teargas and using brute force, entrapment by the FBI, and the eight defendants disagreeing among themselves and with their attorney.
Sorkin, the undisputed champion in writing stirring dialogue, makes his characters articulate and eloquent, perhaps more so than they were in real-life court transcripts. They speak fast, with urgency, conviction, even loathing, the verbal rhythm dictating screen edits. It’s not all fire and indignation though, Sorkin times his humour and wit, mostly delivered by Sacha Baron Cohen blending his comedic and dramatic flair as the politically motivated and irreverent Abbie Hoffman.
The cast includes Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, John Lynch Carroll as David Dellinger, Yahya Abdul Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Joseph Gordon Leavitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Michael Keaton as Attoney General Ramsey Clark and a stand-out performance by Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman as the villain in whose court a slow death of democracy and decency plays out.
There’s friction in the dynamics of the eight men thrown together as co-accused. They represent different groups and use different tactics though the aim is the same: to protest against America’s participation in the Vietnam War. They don’t always agree on how their trial should proceed but one moment rallies them together. When Seale, who’s been without legal representation the entire time, is beaten, gagged and bound in court, the magnitude of their prosecution and persecution is amplified in an angry, painful way they can no longer tolerate. Denied of his basic rights, Seale is eventually thrown out of the case altogether.
Sorkin has made an important film. You know it has something serious to say. Credit to Sorkin that despite the weighty subject, this is not an exercise of self-importance. It is informative, entertaining and it may even stir some people to action. Scary thing is, not much has changed in half a century.
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