The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an Affirming Fraction of its Embattled History

Image courtesy of Netflix

Not if, but when, you watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix, know that, like all movies based on historical events, what you’re watching is a cherry-picked and tidy two-hour dramatization of legal proceedings that lasted just short of 150 days. Normally when that happens, the dramatic license to make an entertaining product has added any number of embellishments for showmanship’s sake. Folks love the challenge, especially in a courtroom movie, of sniffing out the sugarcoating to wonder “did that really happen?” up and down every narrative peak and valley. The crazy thing is the exact opposite is happening here from Aaron Sorkin.

The whole story is always more than we see in a movie. The courageous antics and challenging tactics seen in the varnished 129 minutes of The Trial of the Chicago 7, are just a fraction of what really transpired in this raucous real-life case. It was wilder than this. It was worse than this. For a single example statistic, the eight defendants and their lawyers racked up 159 counts of criminal contempt. The movie shows you under ten of them. 

Watch the acting confrontations, observe the reenacted testimonies, and soak up historical perspective, but then go read further official accounts and records afterward. Throw in the civic importance of Medium Cool as a cherry on top. Call it due diligence. Call it praise confirmation as well.

When you do yourself that favor and make that follow-up effort, you will be astonished at what Sorkin and his fellow creators honed as well as what didn’t make the film. There are plenty of instances where missing so much potential material could be considered a flaw. That’s not here. The Trial of the Chicago 7 loses zero of the peace-branded activism and emboldened essence with its brilliant composition to make a commanding, impressive, and affirming viewing experience. 

For those light on their history, the 1968 Democratic National Convention hosted in Chicago was marred by public strife between protest groups and the Chicago Police, much of it caught on cameras while the world was watching. For many, it was the pigs versus the pariahs. When the tear gas cleared and Nixon won the ensuing election, federal conspiracy to incite violence charges were levied by the new U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell (an opening cameo from John Doman) and his prosecution team Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Floran (character actor J.C. Mackenzie).

Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin walk through a tunnel of media in the courthouse rotunda.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The targets were a mix of staunch antiwar influencers deemed “petulant,” “dangerous,” “unprofessional,” “unpatriotic,” and “impolite” by Mitchell. Among them are two duos of large-scale organizers with opposing dispositions. Tom Hayden (Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (rising actor Alex Sharp) were two straight-laced members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The “Mobe” Dems commonly butted philosophical heads with the free-wheeling sarcasm of the “Yippies” (Youth International Party) faction led by Abbie Hoffman (an invested Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (newly minted Emmy winner Jeremy Strong of Succession) despite the same tangential aims. The middle man and occasionally neutral voice of reason was co-defendant and conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). All were represented in court by civil rights attorneys William Kuntsler (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (TV mainstay Ben Shenkman).

Bobbly Seale looks towards his opposing prosecutors while sitting in court.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The most maligned member of the accused was the co-founder of the Black Panthers himself, Bobby Seale (new Watchman Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), flanked often by Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton (the Everywhere Man of Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Detained for another pending criminal charge while the others have made their cushy bail, Seale was trapped silent in this trial without legal representation and disallowed by the Honorable Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) from cross-examining witnesses or making statements. He was the separate eighth of what became the titular septet. 

Jerry Rubin tries to lead a woman to safety through tear gas.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Fueled in fits and spurts by a peppy score from composer Daniel Pemberton, the back-and-forth arguments of the case trigger expositional flashback sequences of the events before, during, and after the fateful August riots from the various points of view. The spoken details and filmed set pieces are, through the deft editing from Alan Baumgarten (American Hustle), interlaced with the archival parallel footage from the real history. Those splashes of black-and-white violence remind viewers of the gravity behind the potential farce. As the trial drags on, the case presents more and more conflicting purposes and damning blame.

Revolutions may hurt feelings. As Abby Hoffman will jest, they’re not meant to be easy. He and his rhetoric consider this to be a political trial of the cultural revolution that he believes should be evolving to an actual one that usurps the government. Ruffling feathers is only the beginning and this trial is a springboard to draw the proper attention. He’s the type of shifty and enigmatic presence to catch every egg meant for his face and splatter them on his critics’ faces instead, be them friend or foe.  

The price of revolution is lives. While public spectacle invaded the legal arena, this was no kangaroo court. The charges and risks were real. These men were facing a decade of jail time eating away the primes of their twenties and thirties. Livelihoods count as lives, but at least the eight on trail would have them. The same could not be said for the thousands of casualties in Vietnam that grew by the day. Wants, desires, votes, and issues aside, lost lives sparked these rallies and protests. The present day could learn from the events of a half-century ago. It shouldn’t take an international war to bring true change when the conflicts are right here locally.

Be it in court, on tape, out on the streets, or one-on-one with a rival, get your words right. Watch your mouth. Frame your argument and positions. Pick your battles and, most importantly, speak up no matter the consequences if your beliefs are solid. These eight men had not only such sly wherewithal, but the moral conviction of ideals to stand behind their every vocalized breath publicly and under every bright light of scrutiny. This would be the complete opposite of the anonymous “internet courage” of today. 

With this being an Aaron Sorkin film, the words are the best part. The Academy Award-winning writer (The Social Network) turned filmmaker (Molly’s Game) has always had something beyond the normal gift of gab. Known and celebrated for his staccato assaults of barbed conversations, the punches of his The Trial of the Chicago 7 script linger longer than his usual pacing. To a marvelous effect, performance scenes stretch taller, lifted by wisely chosen imaginary moments of stumps and pontiffs. Such opportunities created arguably the best ensemble acting showcase so far this year.

Judge Julius Hoffman prepares to drop his gavel in court.
Image courtesy of Netflix

From the most flippant to the most cantankerous, not a single cast member misses their mark or weakens any chain. With every low-registered pronouncement and irksome removal of his eyeglasses, Frank Langella puts on a clinic for the evil slow boil. Those pitted against him exude their ranges of indignation for complementary combinations. The flamboyance of Sacha Baron Cohen, the spry spirit of Mark Rylance, and the passionate postulating of Eddie Redmayne all come from distinctly opposition character viewpoints and backgrounds. Yet, every clash of differences only tightens the cohesions of their unified cause and thickens the performances. And, for a Sorkin film, you can bet every syllable is measured to millisecond for maximum effect.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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