There are great films, and there are movies “of their moment.” Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a bit of both.
Harrowing and cautionary, inspiring and thanks to a healthy splash of ironic wit, damned entertaining, it’s a movie about America then and “justice” then and now, and an emphatic reminder that the political civil war that seems to have come to a head under Donald Trump had its origins in a kangaroo court that “the whole world” was “watching.”
Sorkin, whose political and courtroom bonafides were established with “The West Wing” and “A Few Good Men,” cast the eight (never seven) leftists accused of conspiring to start riots in 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention well, cast the legal counsels better and cast the perfect villain.
I can’t say how we’ll look on this all-star vehicle five years down the road. But for today, nearing an election in the most politically roiled and corpse-littered year America has had since Vietnam, “Chicago 7” is the movie that matters, the movie of the moment.
Sorkin sets up the rivalry between the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the Youth International Party of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong).
He has wonderful actors embody their respective branches of the broader anti-Vietnam War-anti-fascist/pro-civil rights movement, and gives them glorious lines to make their case.
“Dr. King is dead,” Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, terrific) thunders to his office in explaining his decision to come speak at those 1968 protests. “Martin’s dead. Malcolm’s dead. Medgar’s dead. Bobby’s dead. JESUS is dead. They tried it peacefully, we’re gonna try something else!”
Lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) allies with Hayden to try and keep the peace and the focus on “ending the war.” That rubs against the broader “revolutionary” aims of protest clown princes Rubin and Hoffman. But when Hayden’s arrested, who will bail him out? You, Abbie?
“I don’t carry money, do you?” he asks Dellinger.
“I do,” the older man snipes. “I’m a grown man.”
We’re introduced to the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a meeting that reveals the conspiracy Nixon’s thin-skinned and partisan attorney general John Mitchell set up to bring the protest movement leaders to trial — for conspiracy.
The movie hustles us into court, and between witnesses and court motions and arguments, flashbacks (using reenactments blended with shocking documentary footage) take us back to the clashes between tens of thousands of protestors and police, all there for a convention, Walter Cronkite points out on live TV, “about to begin in a police state.”
And in that court we see a “system” twisted, manipulated and perverted by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, venomously imperious and confused), who can’t keep names straight, can’t control his court and whose biases are obvious from the beginning, so much so that Rubin and Abbie blurt “OVER-ruled” and “SUSTAINED” before the judge can get every pro-prosecution ruling out of his mouth.
Judge Hoffman’s hostility, raining “contempt” citations on the defense — particularly the un-represented Seale, shown as the real “victim” of all this — gets so out of hand that he blurts “sustained” out before it has ever occurred to the prosecution to raise an objection at facts that undermine its case.
Oscar winner Mark Rylance stands out in the cast for reviving the reputation of celebrated/vilified defender-of-causes attorney William Kunstler, a performance of wry whimsy and barely-contained outrage. Rylance fumes and twinkles like the master craftsman he is, swaying the viewer and maybe the judge and jury. .
Cohen’s Hoffman, seen beginning his years of college campus “stand-up” lectures, recreating the protests and the trial, is hilarious, smart and committed, quick with a quip and yet capable of startling empathy. He goofs around over gaining protest “permits,” but he wants that spotlight, for himself and “the revolution.”
“There’s no place to be right now but IN it!”
But it is Sorkin’s film’s sense of “right now” that sticks with you. If we’ve re-learned anything over the past couple of years it’s that yes, cops often start riots, that the police lie to make their case, that they hide their badges when they’re planning to do violence they don’t expect to be held accountable for. Sorkin shows this happening in 1968, and we grimace at how many images just like these we’ve seen in 2020.
A former attorney general takes the stand to remind us that this office is not SUPPOSED to be the lawyer for “the president.”
There were no cell phones back then, although there were enough cameras around capturing the ugliness and violence enacted by The State that the protestors could rightly chant, “The whole WORLD is watching.” If we didn’t learn from what we saw with our own eyes then, Sorkin reminds us, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it again now.
MPAA Rating: R, violence, profanity, drug references
Cast: Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Michael Keaton and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Credits: Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:10