The Trial of the Chicago 7
2020, NR, 129 min. Directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Doman.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 9, 2020
The radical left. It's a term that the American legal system and conservatives have applied to anyone that they want to write off as un-American. That's the old game that U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell (Doman) pulled when he decided to stitch together a conspiracy trial against eight protestors attending anti-war demonstrations surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The result was an infamous show trial, given depressingly pertinent new life in this latest courtroom drama from Aaron Sorkin.
To say the defendants were a mixed bag is an understatement: Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong) of the Yippies, the counter-culture in linen and a haze of smoke; representing the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Tom Hayden (Redmayne, the future lawmaker constantly twitching at being so close to the grandstanding Hoffman) and Rennie Davis (Sharp); nonviolent pacifist David Dellinger (Lynch, suitably awkward as the literal boy scout leader among dissidents); and Black Panther President Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen), and protestors John Froines (Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Robbins) who were seemingly lumped into the suit just to make up the numbers – or, as Seale describes himself, to scare the all-white jury.
For the fifth major recreation of the trial, writer/director Aaron Sorkin diverges from 1970's The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, 1987's Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, the theatrical The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus, and the animated Chicago 10 in structure, if not in intent. They all worked via reenactments of the trial, while here Sorkin intersperses witness box testimony with flashback scenes of the Chicago protests. Those earlier versions told; he shows. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it feels like overegging the cake. It's an almost impossible trap for him: Repeating what they had done would be redundant, but it's proven to be a strong approach. Instead, he lands the same blow by swinging a slightly more traditional haymaker: that this was a political show trial, designed to discredit the fictional radical left. Unsurprisingly, The West Wing's chief architect finds new dramatic tensions – and some of the most thrilling scenes – in the backrooms that he understands so perfectly, and in the conversations and clashes between the defendants.
In a strong cast, Mark Rylance really binds the story together as defense attorney William Kunstler. As always, his intensity is in his quiet clarity, and one second of explosive anger against the egregious abuse of justice by Judge Julius Hoffman (Langella, pushing right up against the question of whether the man in charge of the court was malevolent, senile, or both) vents all the fury the audience needs. Among the intense accuracy of Sorkin's script, there is still some dramatic license. Prosecutor Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) is painted as initially opposing the prosecution as a ridiculous stretch and almost soft-pedaling the case: but the real Schultz was the prosecution's pitbull. It's not the only questionable decision (setting the peaceful park demonstration that the cops turned into a riot against a dramatic rock track is a hell of a choice). But it all comes back to Sorkin's core idea, implicitly and expertly expressed: that the tactic of violence and provocation, then making the victims seem like thugs, is still performed in Portland and St. Louis and New York, just as it was in Chicago. It's also a reminder that there was no Chicago 7 until the establishment brought them together.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 will be released on Netflix on Oct. 16.
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The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Doman