Movie Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Plot: Following the riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, several key anti-Vietnam War leaders including Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are arrested. Put on trial for conspiracy and intent to incite a riot, the case became one of the biggest political trials of the 20th century. Together with the help of their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), the seven face a hostile police force, the media, and a rogue trial judge in Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
Review: I’m a sucker for a good trial film. Whether it’s A Few Good Men, A Time To Kill, or 12 Angry Men, there’s something inherently attractive about the drama of an American courtroom. This becomes doubly true if the defendant(s) are being railroaded such as Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird. Director Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is a very good – though not quite great – film, rife with excellent performances, stirring courtroom drama, and Sorkin’s signature rapid fire dialogue. Although it doesn’t always adhere to historical fact (especially the closing scene), Sorkin’s movie proves a strong new edition in the canon of courtroom dramas.
The strength of The Trial of the Chicago 7 lies in its excellent ensemble cast. Eddie Redmayne – aside from his Oscar winning turn in The Theory of Everything – often comes off as a very vanilla actor. Some film reviewers have said the same here, but I disagree. Redmayne’s performance in Chicago 7 comes off very strong with his Hayden the moral center of the film He’s willing to use passive resistance such as letting the air out of a police car’s tires or insisting on coming to Chicago for the convention regardless of whether or not he gets a permit. He’s committed to protecting those around him and even tries to avoid violence, except for one key scene where it becomes imperative that the nation really see what’s happening and the stakes. Hayden commits to keeping the focus on the Vietnam War itself.
Jeremy Strong also delivers an excellent performance as quintessential hippie and stoner Jerry Rubin. Strong’s character offers some of the best moments of levity in this film especially a hysterical moment early on regarding an egg and his over exaggerated “relationship” with an undercover cop. The always reliable John Carroll Lynch plays to type as pacifist David Dellinger, who’s frustration at the injustice of the trial boils over to the point that he actually punches someone. A fair portion of said injustice falls at the feet of judge Julius Hoffman, played brilliantly by Frank Langella. Hoffman’s antics ranged the gamut from the ridiculous (making it a point to let the courtroom know he was not related to Abbie Hoffman), the inexplicable (not allowing the jury to hear the testimony of former Attorney General Ramsay Clark), to the downright cruel (having Bobby Seale literally bound and gagged in the courtroom). Rylance also provides a solid performance as Kunstler who repeatedly has to watch his clients railroaded by Hoffman’s antics. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also shines as lead prosecutor Richard Schultz. Although ostensibly on the “other side,” Sorkin’s screenplay paints a nuanced character who believes in justice and fair play even for the people he’s trying to prosecute.
The real stand-outs however are Cohen and Abdul-Mateen as Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale respectively.
Cohen delivers the best performance of his career, absolutely falling into the role of one of the leading counter culture members of the 1960s. Cohen walks a delicate tightrope of goofy, endearing, and serious. We get to see the various sides of Hoffman’s character, whether he’s waxing poetic on college campuses regaling students with the antics of the trial, dressing up in the courtroom with Rubin in judge’s robes, or quipping that he can protest the war and fuck around because “he went to Brandeis.” Yet as cavalier as Hoffman could be, he was deadly serious when it came to ending the Vietnam War. In fact there’s an excellent scene between Cohen and Redmayne’s Hayden where he basically explains that he has to perform his schtick in order to raise money to actually fight the war. It’s a means to an end even if he revels in it.
Abudl-Mateen meanwhile continues to crush it as an actor. He wowed audiences with his work in Aquaman and Watchmen but with The Trial of The Chicago 7 he ups his game even more. His portrayal of Bobby Seale paints a harrowing portrait of what it was like to be a black political activist in America during the 1960s. A member of the Black Panther party, Seale stood separate from the seven other people in the trial, going without counsel not because he refused it, but because his lawyer was stuck in the hospital for medical reasons and the judge would not allow the trial to be delayed. You really feel for Seale throughout this movie and get a sense of how there’s a different degree of justice if you’re black in America, something that remains very topical today. The death of his close friend and fellow Panther member Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the straw that eventually unhinges Seale leading to him being bound and gagged in the courtroom, a scene as captivating as it is disgusting. A nice tip of the cap to Abdul-Mateen. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial feature once again showcases his signature staccato dialogue, with exchanges that come off real, nuanced, and often funny. This is exemplified by an excellent scene toward the end of the film where Rylance has to convince Hayden that he cannot take the stand after a tape surfaces of some inflammatory language Hayden said to the crowd. What ensues is a master’s class in how to create a scene with Rylance acting as the prosecution in a mock-up cross examination, inter-cut with flashbacks to the actual events.
Unfortunately as sometimes happens with Sorkin, he gets caught up in his own excess at times as evidenced by the conclusion to the film. While meant to be rousing and inspiring, it comes off melodramatic and over the top, with Daniel Pemberton’s heretofore solid score downright eye roll inducing. It’s one of the few times for me where a film went from great to very good within a matter of minutes.
Nevertheless, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is still very much a strong film replete with excellent performances and gripping dialogue. While not on par with Sorkin’s previous work in A Few Good Men, it’s still very much worth your time.
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
The Trial of the Chicago 7 rates: 8/10