When adapting historical events, Aaron Sorkin is known, not for his accuracy but for his distinct style of writing that he uses to mold the world around him. That remains true for The Trial of The Chicago 7. Sorkin’s approach lends itself well to the tense legal battles within the courtroom but at points can undermine the stakes of the scene and of the film as a whole.
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, massive demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War from prominent progressive organizations. The demonstrations took a violent turn when they were confronted by thousands of police officers. It eventually led to full-scale riots that left 11 people dead, 48 wounded, 90 policemen injured, and 2,150 people arrested. Instead of showing us these riots, Sorkin skips ahead to 1969 where Nixon is president and John Mitchell the attorney general.
Looking back on the riots, Mitchell decides he wants to press charges against what he calls the “schoolboys” or the 8 leaders of the Chicago riots. Indeed it’s the Chicago 8. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, and Bobby Seale were all charged with conspiracy to incite violence across state lines. Eventually, Seale’s indictment is separated from the rest which is how the name becomes the Chicago 7.
The film makes clear that many of them did conspire but it wasn’t to incite violence, it was to perform a massive demonstration with the exception of Bobby Seale. Bobby Seale not only has no association with any of the other leaders, but he was also only in Chicago for only 4 hours during the convention. This among many other details assures us that this trial is politically motivated. Mitchell brings in Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz as prosecutors against the Chicago 8 which leads us to where we spend the bulk of the film, the trial.
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At first, it’s unclear if Judge Hoffman is incompetent or just completely biased against the defendants. We soon realize both to be true when Judge Hoffman denies Bobby Seale the right to counsel and strikes the defense’s best arguments from the record without reason. As the odds get stacked against the defendants, the Chicago 7 has to decide if they want to use the trial to send a message or betray their ideals to have a better chance at exoneration.
An entire film centered around the miscarriage of justice in a trial stacked against 8 innocent activists seems like a heavy topic but Sorkin makes it bearable and almost fun to watch. By far the least enjoyable storyline is Bobby Seale’s. This isn't because it’s poorly written but because it’s full of blatant injustice that a courtroom, the symbol of justice, couldn’t keep him from. Seale’s storyline was also truncated from the true story which felt like a missed opportunity.
Sorkin’s quick wit and fast-paced dialogue along with the stellar cast creates strong performances but Sorkin’s biggest strengths are also his biggest weaknesses. In pivotal scenes, the humorous ping-pong like conversations detracts from the overall gravity of the situation and come off inorganic. Not everyone needs to have quick, off the cuff responses in such a high stakes situation but that is to be expected with Sorkin writing and directing. We can overlook the signature unbelievable dialogue as it is expected along with the well-crafted, pacing, structure, and at times cringe-worthy grandstanding.
Cast and Characters
The conflict between the Chicago 7 is one of the biggest strengths of the film. Despite Schultz attempting to band the Chicago 7 together as a monolith to the jury, they are all vastly different. Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong, are the irreverent counterculture icons that come off as a stoner duo. David Dellinger played by John Carrol Lynch is an earnest conscientious objector, Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, and Rennie Davis, played by Alex Sharp, are the bright-eyed, buttoned-up activists. Finally, Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is the co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
With this ensemble cast, the performances are stellar with the standout being Cohen. Cohen’s innate irreverence fits perfectly with the real-life Hoffman whose antics in the courtroom served to challenge authority (dressing up as a judge in court). The constant ideological battle between the Chicago 7 runs throughout the entire film but mainly between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman has complete disregard for authority whereas Hayden believes you need to use the authority to achieve the change you want.
Even though some of Hayden’s comments on counter-culture feel like direct jabs by Sorkin himself, it’s not decided who’s right and who’s wrong by the film’s end. Instead, it’s decided that fighting among each other won’t solve anything and neither will participating in a rigged trial.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is as Sorkin as it gets, taking place in a courtroom. That includes the good (the acting, structure, dialogue, no female character for him to butcher) and the bad (cringe-worthy lines, sanctimonious characters). Much like the other signature Sorkin movies, the good far outweighs the bad. The tale of a massive demonstration taking a violent turn when confronted by police is a tale that’s very relevant in 2020. For that reason, this story is significantly meaningful and sticks with you after the film ends.
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