This, gentle readers, may very well be the hardest review I’ve ever had to write.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The cast is comprised of such talents as Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, freaking Michael Keaton pokes his head in there, the list goes on and on.
Seriously, everyone in the cast — from the A-listers to the seasoned character actors, from the leads to the background extras — is a remarkable talent. And they’re reading from a script written by a grandmaster of political drama, one of the greatest living dialogue writers in film and television.
This is easily the strongest work that Eddie Redmayne has ever put on record, and I’m including The Theory of Everything in that assessment. JGL does fantastic work as the prosecutor acting on behalf of the government, without ever once coming off as remotely unsympathetic.
Another highlight is Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man who clearly sees himself as a devoted public servant and a figure of authority, whose ego and obsessive need for control put him diametrically opposed to the defendants. Thus it’s perfectly obvious why the judge can’t see his own inherent bias against the defendants, and he acts as a compelling antagonist without ever going anywhere near cartoonish villainy.
(Side note: An ending title card obligingly mentions that in a biannual survey of Chicago lawyers of the time, respondents overwhelmingly stated that Judge Hoffman was unqualified for the bench. The filmmakers neglect to mention that in spite of his unpopularity; his inherent biases; and his abusive, erratic behavior; Judge Hoffman continued to preside over cases right up until his death in 1983.)
Jeremy Strong is completely unrecognizable, and Sacha Baron Cohen… shit, who knew he had this kind of performance in him? What the hell was he doing, clowning around for Tim Burton and Tom Hooper in godawful bit parts (to say nothing of The Brothers Grimsby) when he could’ve been turning in powerhouse dramatic turns this whole time? Whoever could’ve thought that Baron Cohen could turn in a performance so funny, so intelligent, and so unreservedly fierce?
Oh, and speaking of fierce: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. Need I say more?
And the editing. Oh my god, the editing. Multiple times in this movie, when a character is explaining something that happened, the film will cut between two, three, maybe even four different sequences all unfolding at the same time. And they complement each other beautifully. It’s easy to track, they all build together superbly, and it makes an exposition dump so much more exciting. And shit, that’s not even getting started on the courtroom scenes, all of which are put together seamlessly.
The talent, the dialogue, and the direction on display are absolutely enough to warrant a recommendation.
But then we get to the story and themes. And this is the part where I’m gonna have trouble.
For those who aren’t aware, this story begins in Chicago, with the Democratic National Convention of 1968. A wide variety of protest groups wanted to take the opportunity to stage protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and they were all denied permits. Roughly 15,000 protesters showed up anyway, and things got predictably ugly. However, Ramsey Clark (played by Michael Keaton) — the Attorney General at the time, under Lyndon B. Johnson — declined to pursue any indictments, after finding that the police caused more violence than the protesters did.
Flash forward to March of 1969, just after Richard Nixon took office. With a new president came a new AG who was more eager to press charges. Specifically, the charge of conspiracy to cross state lines and incite a riot, breaking a law explicitly passed to target civil rights activists. The defendants were as follows.
- Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis (respectively played by Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp), with the Students for Democratic Society, a young socialist organization dedicated to political change.
- Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong), with the crass, counter-cultural, and overtly theatrical Youth International Party.
- David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a radical pacifist, jailed as a conscientious objector in WWII.
- John Froines and Lee Weiner (Danny Flaherty and Noah Robbins), who allegedly instructed other protesters in the science of bomb construction.
As for the aforementioned Bobby Seale, he was put on trial with the other alleged conspirators even though he had never met any of the defendants before the indictment. Seale was also standing trial without his legal counsel present, after his lawyer was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery and The Honorable Judge Hoffman refused to delay the case.
Seale’s proceedings were eventually declared a mistrial for obvious reasons, which is why the defendants are alternately called the Chicago 7 and the Chicago 8.
So, what we’ve got here are a bunch of protesters, each with their own conflicting methods and priorities. They all came to Chicago for varying degrees of peaceful protest — from the intelligent discourse of the SDS to the shocking displays of the YIP — but they were all met with tear gas and riot clubs by cops who took off their badges and name tags before attacking. Thus the protesters moved to defend themselves, the violence escalated from there, and everyone in the movement is branded and charged as a violent criminal.
When I say that this movie hit me right where I live, I literally mean that it hit me exactly, geographically, where I live.
Night after night, I’ve seen the livestreams of Portlanders protesting, rioting, and getting beaten by the police. I’ve been to some of the protests myself, marching and chanting with hundreds in the streets. And though I’ve never personally been tear-gassed, arrested, or assaulted by cops, many good friends of mine have.
For the past several months, my beloved native Portland has made national headlines for its various protests and riots, and I’ve had a front-row seat to watch it all unfold. This has taken up a huge part of my social media feed and my brainspace for most of the past year.
So when I tell you that this movie is timely and hard-hitting, with messages that couldn’t be more accurate or relevant to our present times, I need you to understand that I’ve never been more deadly serious. Without the period costumes, this movie could’ve easily been shot in Portland today and sold as a documentary.
Here — this is a story from CNN about the riots about the shattered windows and broken property last Saturday. Word through the grapevine is that there was a schism at that protest: the BLM activists were there to protest racial injustice, and the anti-capitalists were there to smash shit. But the cops and the media didn’t make that distinction, so everyone was targeted by the cops and the property damage became the story.
Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens all the time behind the scenes. Don’t Shoot PDX, the Portland Youth Liberation Front, Community Creating Unity PDX, the Wall of Moms, the local NAACP chapter… there are so many different organizations out there, all putting together their own events and demonstrations. And you wouldn’t believe all the gossip going around about which group doesn’t do enough for the cause, which leader is running whose group into the ground for whatever reason, which feud or disagreement is going on at any given time, the list goes on and on. And that’s not even getting started on the social media squabbles between unaffiliated social media personalities who livestream the protests.
The issues we’re facing are so much bigger than any one group or person. And anyone who gets involved in this would choose to do so because they’re educated people of immense ambition and willpower. Put it all together, and of course it’s going to result in some powerful clashes of opinion.
So when I saw Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman nearly come to blows over their differing opinions of the cause, it really hit me hard. Here we have seven or eight wildly different people — all of whom fervently believe in the same cause for different reasons, fighting with different methods and tactics, each with his own different line that he won’t cross — all painted with the same broad strokes as criminal degenerates, the better to shove their righteous intended message to the gutter.
This is exactly what’s happening right now, folks. I can’t possibly stress that enough. And therein lies the problem for me as a film critic.
Precisely because I came to the film with all this specific baggage at this exact moment in time, I really have to work to look at it from any kind of detached perspective. Would the film work just as well for someone who hasn’t been surrounded by social activism for the past several months? How would it look to someone from a different city? How might it age?
Well, there are some problems inherent in the subject matter. The actual trial was run by such a glaringly incompetent judge that all the convictions were overturned on appeal, and that inevitable ending renders the premise pretty much toothless. Additionally, the premise has basically nothing to do with gender equality, LGBTQ rights, or socioeconomic disparity, all of which are among the major hot-button issues right now. The other big one is race relations, and the filmmakers certainly do what they can with the topic. However, because Bobby Seale was dismissed partway through the trial, there’s only so much that could be done.
Really, looking back at the film, I can’t point to anything groundbreaking or especially bold. The one exception might be the explicit portrayal of cops removing their badges and identification before engaging in excessive force that they know to be illegal — off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other films in recent memory that went so far. It’s clear that the filmmakers were less interested in making something new than in getting everything right — a classic recipe for Oscar-bait.
I don’t think this movie will stand the test of time, but it’s rather depressing to think of how films about police brutality and protests have such an apparently short shelf life. Does anyone else remember Detroit? The Hate U Give? Queen and Slim? Blindspotting? I think Selma might be more widely and fondly remembered than all those others put together, and that’s not saying much. And all of those movies were easily better than this one, if only because they all put such a heavy focus on black people as opposed to a bunch of white men.
In any other year, I suspect The Trial of the Chicago 7 would’ve been just another disposable Oscar-bait film, and it will very likely be forgotten as such in the years to come. But right now, in the godawful year of 2020 — at a time when Hollywood is crippled by a raging pandemic and whole cities have been swallowed up by racial protests — the film is definitely a highlight. It’s worth seeing for the dialogue and the performances alone. Still, given the level of talent that went into this, it’s hard to shake that nagging feeling of lost potential.