Film Review: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a Riveting and Timely Triumph

Aaron Sorkin’s latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is yet another impressive entry in his ever-expanding canon of smartly written dramas, and as his second directorial outing, proves his confidence and ability as a filmmaker has become fully realized. 

As someone who isn’t usually particularly enthralled by courtroom dramas, I didn’t quite know what to expect going into Sorkin’s latest, which dramatizes the months-long trial of seven anti-war activists dubbed “co-conspirators” by the United States government in 1969. The conspiracy that these men were being charged with? Well, they all just happened to be leaders of prominence that were present when things turned violent in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention. The Convention, and the corresponding action on the streets which exploded into upheaval when protestors clashed with the brutal Chicago PD, was an event that symbolized a great deal in 1968, and the government wanted to make examples of the leading protest organizers by criminalizing their speech and setting a downright authoritarian precedent.

Only being vaguely familiar with the trial of the Chicago Seven (originally the “Conspiracy Eighth” before Black Panther Bobby Seale’s case was declared a mistrial), I was certainly interested to see what Sorkin’s take on the politics of the era would be. Though Sorkin is a brilliant screenwriter, he does have the tendency to swoon at grandiose displays of “decency and honor” and other slightly indefinable qualities that only sometimes actually translate into real or moral leadership. Because of this, I was admittedly a tad worried that Sorkin would slide into lazy conventions and pro-American sentimentality when telling this story; after all, you can learn a lot about a Democrat’s actual politics by hearing their take on what happened at the 1968 convention. Needless to say, it’s shocking that anyone would still defend the Democratic party’s slimy behind-the-scenes maneuvering that ended up handing the pro-war Hubert Humphrey the nomination, despite Humphrey having not participated in any of the state primaries.

Fortunately, Aaron Sorkin did not disappoint, and with his latest effort has delivered a rousing, highly relevant indictment of the U.S. Government’s treatment of protestors in the 1960’s and a revealing microcosm into the nature of our broken justice system. Sorkin’s script is direct in its admonishment of not just the Nixon administration, but also the thuggish police who carried out the orders of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to brutalize the protesting forces instead of accommodating them. The Chicago Police are portrayed in this film exactly as they were: minions of an oppressive, authoritarian state bent on stamping out resistance to their depraved foreign policy. 

Of course history has vindicated the protestors of the Vietnam war – as history always does vindicate those resisting oppressive, imperialist states – and one of the most interesting aspects of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the dynamics between the defendants on trial, particularly the differing approaches to activism of Tom Hayden, leader of Students for a Democratic Society, and Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party. Hayden, a clean cut young man of privilege, insists on a more civil and “respectful” approach to activism, while Hoffman is far more anarchistic in his methods and wears his disdain for American institutions on his sleeve. Hayden is more interested in electoral victories down the ballot, where Hoffman cares more for cultural revolution. The relationship of these characters provides an insightful look into the differing theories of affecting change, and how those theories can both conflict and collaborate.

Interestingly, Sorkin developed this script in 2007 for director Steven Spielberg, who eventually abandoned the project which led to Sorkin himself taking the reins in 2018 when production kicked off. Little did Sorkin know just how increased the relevance of his film would be by the time it would be released in America. 2020 has found the nation amidst its most visible and intense struggle for civil rights since the 1960’s, and it’s crazy to see how little has changed since — many of the images of police assaulting protestors with tear gas and bully clubs look downright identical to recent brutalizations and gassings of citizens demanding justice for the likes of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other recent victims of police violence and state sponsored terror. The coincidental timing of this film’s release certainly bolsters the importance of its message, and heightens the impact of its depictions of police brutality, Democratic party corruption and the longstanding tradition of our government which is to send in militarized armies of thug cops to brutalize and instigate at protests and demonstrations.

I will reiterate that this film could not have been released in a more timely political environment. Watching the reenactments of police assault on protestors of the Vietnam war is a sickening reminder of how little has changed. We recently passed the 19th anniversary of invading Afghanistan, a country we now seem to be permanently occupying to maintain control of its vast mineral wealth. The anti-war movement has never been more defeated than it is today, resigned to the depraved reality of a booming military industrial complex which thrives on bi-partisan corruption. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have any intention of ending our wars, as both parties are the servants of the defense contractors, oil merchants and other corrupting influences which benefit from our endless occupation of resource-rich developing nations like Iraq, Syria and Venezuela. 

Our government’s treatment of protestors is just as disgusting today as it was in the 60’s, from Standing Rock to the recent assaults on Black Lives Matter demonstrators across the country. Watching the Nixon administration try to prosecute activists on the grounds of their 1st amendment rights reminds us of the current attempts by the Trump administration to extradite and punish Julian Assange for his “crimes” of publishing leaked documents and videos exposing American war crimes, which has put our 1st amendment blatantly in jeopardy. And of course, the 1968 Democratic Convention is itself a reminder that the Democratic Party operates undemocratically and like a cartel instead of a political party. Just as they conspired to stop an anti-war candidate from being nominated, they continue to undermine the will of their voters by sabotaging candidates like Bernie Sanders who stand for a less corporate, less militaristic America. Just as they gave Humphrey the nomination in 1968, they conspired to install Biden as their nominee this time around, undermining the entire grassroots, populist movement. As Jamaal Bowman said, “Bernie, if the Democratic establishment didn’t gang up on you and jump you, you would have been the nominee for the Democratic Party. You out-raised everyone, you was killing them, they had to jump you in order to beat you. So I just want to say that outright. If they didn’t jump you, you would have been the nominee.”

Don’t get me wrong—The Trial of the Chicago 7 is also a tremendously entertaining film, filled with exquisite drama and also moments of real human levity. Among the fantastic performances on display in the film, Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne deliver some of their career-best work, turning in magnetic, nuanced portrayals of real revolutionaries. Sorkin provokes genuine chemistry from his large ensemble, and the result is an over 2 hour long film that never ceases to be riveting. Not since Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) has a courtroom drama been so earnestly crafted—so resolute in its patriotism while simultaneously being eager to call out the American empire and its enablers. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is certainly not experimental in its design or approach to storytelling, but it is perfectly paced, and Sorkin’s old fashioned approach is honestly refreshing, without reading as overly nostalgic like so many films set in this period of American history. Sorkin has clearly found his footing when it comes to directing, and his sophomore effort, which is beautifully shot by Phendon Papamichael, is certainly worth viewing at your local cinema, where it will be playing until Friday when it hits Netflix.

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