The Trial of the Chicago 7 — Movie Review

Now that October of 2020 has finally arrived, it’s time for the yearly Oscar-worthy ensemble pieces to pervade streaming services and theaters everywhere. Even though COVID-19 has closed most theaters across the United States, awards season is still limping its way to the starting line. The Trial of the Chicago 7, a new courtroom drama based on a true story, is a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing in future awards talks when Oscar season rolls around. It has more recognizable stars than one could count on two hands and is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind classics such as The Social Network and The West Wing. This is Sorkin’s second time directing in addition to writing after Molly’s Game, and he yet again proves that he doesn’t need a director like David Fincher to make a classic. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a riveting film from start to finish which doesn’t waste one performance despite the large cast and is far more applicable to the current time of social unrest than even the filmmakers must have realized when shooting it over a year ago.

The film details the months-long trial that occured after the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Eight people, who were pinned as the “leaders” of these riots, were arrested and charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent of inciting violent acts even though most of them had never met before the riots. As is made clear at the beginning of the film, these “riots” were initially peaceful protests of the Vietnam War and ended up escalating into something unrecognizable by the end of the weekend. However, instead of actually listening to what the protestors had to say, the system arrested these eight men and made an example of them with the whole world watching. This trial was more of a political statement than justice served, and as the movie continues we see both the moral ambiguities of who actually started the violence and who is really in charge of the major decisions in the criminal justice system. 

This is a large subject for Sorkin to tackle, but as always he makes it look easy. From the  first montage scene before the title appears on the screen to the last scenes of tense dialogue between opposing sides in the trial, The Trial of the Chicago 7’s writing and directing is immaculate, and Sorkin immerses the audience into a story that would have been boring with any other writer. The film is enthralling despite most of it taking place inside a courtroom — the pacing is so natural that not once was I ever bored throughout the 129 minute runtime. With this movie, Sorkin is not intending for the audience to care only about the guilt or innocence of the people on trial, although if this was the intent then he succeeds with flying colors. He instead intends for this trial to be an examination of the political institutions that control the ideologies of this country and which bend anyone who dissents to conforming under its will. 

There are many directions one could take this broad message about the state of America. One could take it in the direction of race, as exemplified by Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who did not even participate in the Chicago riots, but was arrested and framed for this crime anyway because of his association with the Black Panther party. His character is never allowed to have an attorney throughout the trial, and he is constantly shut down by the racist and biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Abdul-Mateen delivers one of the best performances in the movie portraying a man who has been wronged by the system as far too many are, and he emphasizes a powerful message that outshines many of his more experienced co-stars. With Watchmen, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the upcoming Jordan Peele-produced Candyman, I think it’s clear at this point that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a name we are going to be hearing quite a lot in years to come.

All of the performances are top-notch and some are surprising, such as Sacha Baron Cohen, who nails the role of Abbie Hoffman in a dramatic turn that might even get positive feedback from people who are not fans of his comedic work in Borat or Who is America?. My other personal favorites that deserve some mention are Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, who delivers the funniest performance playing a “Yippie” with his heart broken by a protester who ends up being an undercover FBI agent; Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the defiant defense attorney who refuses to back down for his client’s rights; and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, who gives the most emotionally potent performance in the film. I have good things to say about every performance in this movie, which is an attest to how well-cast and well-directed this production is.  

However, the themes that make The Trial of the Chicago 7 so on-the-nose and relevant are nothing that the filmmakers ever could have planned. If you think that the events of this movie look familiar, that is because protests and morally-ambiguous “riots” like this have been happening all over the country since the murder of George Floyd at the end of May. The trial shown here is a parallel to the discussion being had in the houses of families all across America in the past couple of months. Whichever side one takes on this issue — whether one thinks the riots are justified given the cause or are out-of-line no matter what — this film addresses the talking points of both political parties and generally broadens one’s perspective on the protests of the Vietnam War in the 60s and of racism in America today. As usual, Sorkin aims for the stars with his messages in this film, and he will connect with just about anyone who has the pleasure of watching.

While the final scene adheres to the overused cliché in biopics of people giving the main characters a standing ovation, the film still makes an impact that will not be lost on anyone who gives this movie a watch when it drops on Netflix on October 16. Every single member of this large cast is on top of their game, and the production as a whole never feels thrown together. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an excellently depicted true story with writing from Sorkin that is top-notch — nothing we don’t expect at this point. It is a powerful comment on the political system in America during times of turmoil and the ways in which protesting challenges the establishment, making it an essential film for the here and now. Awards season, here we come!

I give The Trial of the Chicago 7 an A.

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