Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
It started with 8. The “Chicago 7” trial began with eight defendants. And, if anything, the actual events that gripped our nation in 1968 were even more traumatic and chaotic than any writer/director could ever capture.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of the most entertaining courtroom dramas in years. It’s not surprising that it’s written and directed by the Oscar-winning scribe, Aaron Sorkin, who delivered “A Few Good Men” back in 1992. That popular courtroom-set flick gave us the unforgettable line of dialogue, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Sorkin, who won the Oscar for writing “The Social Network” and managed to enchant both liberals and conservatives with the iconic television series “The West Wing,” was introduced to the Chicago 7 story by Steven Spielberg over 13 years ago. The project languished for years, while Sorkin moved from writing to directing.
His work, both as writer and director, on the well-regarded 2017 movie “Molly’s Game,” not only netted him another Academy Award nomination for writing but also established Sorkin as a capable director. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is his second directorial effort, and marks progress behind the camera.
Unlike “Molly’s Game,” which I found a little annoying and a bit overwrought, “Chicago 7” gives Sorkin a more extensive ensemble cast similar to his best work as a writer. The broad sweep of the narrative is ambitious, and the movie handles the ungainly nature of the various events and voices with remarkable precision.
“This is a painting, where journalism is a photograph,” Sorkin was quoted as saying about translating the real-world happenings to the screen. “Chicago 7” isn’t a cold documentary; instead, this is a dramatic telling that is so joyously entertaining that you have to question whether occurrences in the film actually happened.
But some things you can’t make up.
In 1968, against the bloody backdrop of the Vietnam War (1,000 American troops were dying in battle every month), following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. Various protest groups applied for permits, but Mayor Richard Daley refused to grant demonstration permission to what were termed “anti-patriotic” groups.
Naturally, many protesters descended on the city anyway. Leaders of several associations staged organized events. As the number grew, 11,000 members of the police were joined by 6,000 National Guard troops to disperse the crowds. The result was violent skirmishes throughout the convention week.
Following the election of Richard Nixon, a new Attorney General, John Mitchell, was put in place and pursued a case under the Rap Brown Law, an anti-riot act. Indicted were Students for a Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis; The Youth International Party representatives Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; and The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam principals David Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner. Thrown in as a defendant was Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for 4 hours to deliver a speech.
The resulting jury trial was a messy one conducted by United States District Judge Julius Hoffman, who created grounds for appeal merely through his antagonistic attitude toward the defense. Famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler represented the seven defendants.
In his dramatization of the pivotal events of the time, Sorkin relied on trial transcripts and interviews with the late Tom Hayden, who died in 2016. While there’s no question that Sorkin paints a painting with his version of the events, a great injustice is handsomely chronicled. The truth is impossible to ignore.
The members of the ensemble cast are all at the top of their games. Comedian-turned-serious-actor Sacha Baron Cohen is a standout as activist Abbie Hoffman, who provides an often profane rolling commentary during the trial. Oscar-winning Brit actor Eddie Redmayne adopts a completely convincing American accent as Tom Hayden, the defendants' emotional center.
Yahya Adbul-Mateen II, is award-worthy as the tormented Bobby Seale, a political plant among the defendants. Jeremy Strong (see HBO’s “Succession”) is unrecognizable as Jerry Rubin. And John Carroll Lynch once again reminds us that he’s got one of the most expressive faces in movies as he delivers a sensitive portrayal of conscientious objector David Dellinger.
The cast is deep with talent, with Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) raising his voice and tempo as attorney Kunstler. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the uncertain prosecutor Richard Schultz, and Frank Langella is terrific as the often mean-spirited Judge Hoffman.
To give the movie added authenticity, Sorkin splices in real archived footage. It’s a technique that isn’t exploitative or gimmicky here, but deepens our appreciation for the chaos of the time.
If there is a failure to “The Trial of the Chicago 7” it is that the film is almost too entertaining. While this is the perfect ingredient to hold viewer attention, I felt a little guilty cheering on the off-handed comments of Abbie Hoffman and not focusing on the content of the allegations. Had Sorkin helped stage the defense of the seven, I suspect that the jury’s conclusion may have been much different.
Since we only see the case from one side, we cannot fully understand why the seven could have been convicted. It takes text-on-screen to remind us that only through the appellate process could justice be served. Of course, that story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if given the cinematic narrative treatment.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is sure to lead many critics’ best-of lists, and that attention is warranted. It’s a movie that combines timely importance and crowd-pleasing courtroom drama.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com