Film

Review: Recounting a Chicago Courtroom Drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 Ignites with Staggering Performances

People seem to enjoy giving Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin grief, and I’m not entirely clear on why. Obviously as a screenwriter, not all of his words are of equal worth, but his success rate is pretty impressive: A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, and Moneyball, not to mention his TV work on “Sports Night,” “The Newsroom,” and the gold-standard “The West Wing.” Even his first film as a writer/director, Molly’s Game, had its moments. Maybe it’s his string of successes that have irked people in some way. Or perhaps it’s his skill at distilling a disjointed series of facts into a few key phrases, thus leaving little room for subtlety and smaller details that help illuminate other screenplays. Returning to the director’s chair, Sorkin has put together one of his finest efforts as both a writer and visual artist: The Trial of the Chicago 7, which sees Sorkin back on the scene of his earliest success, the courtroom (as was the primary setting of his hit play A Few Good Men).

Trial of the Chicago 7

Image credit Nico Tavernise, courtesy of Netflix

Sorkin isn’t interested in simply unspooling the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was filled with both peaceful protests and more violent ones. Even as it happened, the questions were always, Who started the violence, and who encouraged it? With chants of “The whole world is watching” echoing through downtown Chicago, police and the National Guard seemed ready to tussle, while the organizers of various, unrelated protests had varying opinions on how best to resist. Instead, the filmmaker holds off on showing those events, jumping from the brink of violence to the court case many months later in which protest leaders like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and others were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines for the purposes of inciting riots. The trial was a circus for many reasons, from the refusal of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, HBO’s Watchmen series, Aquaman, Us) to take part in the proceedings since he wasn’t even a part of the protests (he flew into Chicago for a only a few hours to give a speech) to one bad and clearly biased decision after another by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

The court case has been covered in made-for-TV movies and transcript readings over the years, but Sorkin’s telling seems uncannily relevant. The issues may be different (primarily anti-Vietnam War protesting in 1968), but the visuals of protestors and police and tear gas and outrage seem strangely familiar. What carries the film are the sometimes genius performances by nearly every player on display, but they’re reciting Sorkin’s words (as well as the words of their real-life counterparts) and that combination just clicks and moves and sometimes ignites.

There’s an early scene that sets the tone involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz meeting with the new head of the Justice Department (under Nixon) John Mitchell (John Doman), who seems more miffed that his predecessor, Ramsey Clark, waited until the last second to resign before Mitchell took over. He considered this an insult, and the entire trial might have stemmed from that slight, since Clark didn’t think any federal charges against the Chicago 7 were necessary. And it’s in that spirit of idiotic grudges that the months-long proceeding takes place.

The story of Bobby Seale could have almost been its own movie (and probably will be one day), especially since he was the only defendant not represented by attorney William Kunstler (the staggeringly great Mark Rylance). Even so, Seale was not allowed to speak in his own defense, so he was forced to simply sit there and be advised informally by fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who was killed in a targeted raid on his home during the trial. Seale’s barely contained rage at even being on trial with these seven other men—rounding out the bunch was Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty)—with whom he had no affiliation or attachment. The image of him chained and gagged because he refused to submit to this discriminatory behavior has haunted me since I first heard about it, but to see it here is nothing short of chilling.

There’s no reason to spoil any of the twisty nuances of the trial, but it surprised me how funny the film is at times, mostly in scenes set in the evening, when the defendants are in their collective office working on their case. Cohen and Strong are practically a comedy team both in and out of the courtroom, and the verbal showdowns between Langella and Rylance (with five Tony Awards between them) are exquisite. Kunstler’s befuddlement at watching Judge Hoffman simply ignore, dismantle and disgrace procedure and common sense at every turn is some of the best material in the movie. I’m not sure I bought Sorkin’s assertion that Schultz was silently appalled by the judge’s behavior, especially since it usually benefitted his case, but Gordon-Levitt needed something to do beside play a stone-faced lawyer. In a film that features almost no female roles of any substance, I liked the inclusion of an undercover FBI agent played by Caitlin FitzGerald, who infiltrates Hoffman and Rubin’s group by flirting with Rubin, breaking his heart in the process when she testifies against him.

The film is executed almost like a stage play, with most of the actors occupying just a couple of key locations and a few flourishes of the outside world when we see various flashbacks to the riots and what led up to them—I think that’s what Sorkin excels at in terms of his writing. As a Chicagoan, viewing the re-created clashes between protestors and law enforcement is tough, having seen the real thing in older films like Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool and on the news more recently. Sorkin’s handling of those moments is fine and though they feel small and slightly underplayed, they still pack a punch in terms of the messages being conveyed.

Clearly, the courtroom stuff is the meat of the film, and he manages to make events from more than 50 years ago seem pertinent and timely, as well as electric and tense (even though most of us know how things turned out). It’s a crackling production that captures an embarrassing moment in history that was also loaded with examples of how justice can be corrupted in both big and incremental ways. The performances are dynamic and on point across the board, but I’m guessing everyone will have their favorites (Cohen and Rylance positively channel their characters). In the end, that triumphs over any issues with storytelling or grandstanding on the writer’s part. This is a terrific, energizing production.

The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema; it will be available on Netflix beginning October 16. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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