The 400-Word Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7
By Sean Collier
October 18, 2020
The proceedings depicted in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” did not end the debate over peaceful protest in the United States.
Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama concerns the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Chicago police attacked left-leaning protesters who had been lingering in a city park. A group of prominent activists was brought to trial, on dubious charges, in what became a referendum on the right to protest.
That would make the timing of this film either perfectly prescient or a bit inconvenient, depending on your outlook.
Prescient in that the debate, obviously, rages on. Activists have spent the summer taking to streets and capitol steps. Again, police presence at those protests is inflaming tensions and occasionally leading to conflict.
If you were marketing “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” you’d have an easy time pitching its urgency.
Inconvenient, though, in that the battle depicted here — and, without spoiling anything, a stirring, deliberately inspirational ending — rings a bit hollow when the past 50 years have not led to a better understanding of these issues. If anything, the country’s relationship with protest has regressed. So what’s it all about, then?
If it’s simply about a courtroom drama, it’s a very good one. The titular seven (eight, at the outset) include well-known figures of ’60s counter-culture such as Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Nominally, the trial is about young justice department prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attempting to prove that these disparate figures actively engaged in a conspiracy to incite violence.
In action, however, the film is mostly about both attorneys and defendants attempting to navigate the bizarre behavior of an uncomprehending judge (Frank Langella). That makes for a good movie — and Sorkin, obviously, knows how to film a courtroom drama, particularly when gifted with a juicy, true story full of remarkable details and a more-than-game cast. Mark Rylance, as defense attorney William Kunstler, rises above a very talented crowd.
So: In a vacuum, this is a very good film. We are decidedly not, however, in a vacuum. The only large flaw in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a conclusion which seems to depict things changing. We know all too well that things, materially, have not. It’s a very good film; with a bit more foresight, it may have been great.
My Rating: 8/10
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is now streaming on Netflix.