Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) flawlessly accomplished the tricky task of condensing a trial that lasted five months while also filling in the key backstories of eight pivotal characters over The Trial of the Chicago 7’s two-hour running time. The real 1969 court case was a politically motivated prosecution of peaceful protesters who were involved in violent clashes with the police outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The fact the story feels so relevant in 2010 is deeply disturbing and disheartening.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 actually began with eight defendants, as does the film version of events. Although Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, refused to pursue indictments for any of the protestors, newly elected President Richard Nixon’s AG John Mitchell (John Doman) demanded action be taken, despite Ramsey Clark determining the escalation of the protests occurred because of missteps by police. AG Mitchell placed Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in charge of prosecuting the case, despite Schultz’s initial misgivings.
Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen at his absolute finest), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) faced the prospect of lengthy prison sentences as the result of trumped up charges brought at the urging of AG Mitchell. Seale’s case was eventually severed from the trial of his seven supposed co-conspirators following the disgusting, unethical actions of the incredibly biased judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
The absolutely stunning display of incompetence on the part of Judge Hoffman and the response from the defendants who were fully cognizant of the fact the trial was a politically motivated farce is so engaging that while you know the outcome going in, it’s still fascinating to watch unfold decades later. We know how the trial ended, yet this incredibly talented ensemble is almost able to make you believe there’s a possibility the jury and Judge Hoffman will do the right thing this time around. They didn’t, but thankfully the verdicts were all reversed on appeal.
So much of what transpires in The Trial of the Chicago 7 could be lifted from today’s headlines with only minor tweaks. Social unrest and a nation torn apart…2020 is the ‘60s all over again, with the addition of a pandemic that’s killed over 200,000 Americans. Sorkin’s film resonates now in a way it wouldn’t have had it been made back when he originally wrote the screenplay over a decade ago. History is repeating itself, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 could not feel any more timely.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance are impressive in the less flashy roles of prosecutor Richard Schultz and defense attorney William Kunstler. And Michael Keaton is, as always, terrific in his cameo as a pivotal player who’s introduced late and has quite an impact on the proceedings. But it’s unquestionably Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, and Frank Langella who stand out among the award-worthy ensemble. Each deliver incredible performances, with Cohen, in particular, nailing the tone and Hoffman’s sarcastic manner without being off-putting.
Aaron Sorkin has created a film that speaks to all generations of Americans. The dialogue’s crisp and cutting, the courtroom action is compelling, and the case for speaking truth to power and standing up for what’s right springs to life in all its glory on the screen.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, which premiered on Netflix on October 16, 2020, is a must-see drama perfect for these turbulent times.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes