Release Date: 16/10/2020
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella
Screenplay and Direction: Aaron Sorkin
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and The Social Network) and if you have seen any of his previous films, you will know that Sorkin’s style is at play here from the opening sequences of the film. He has a distinctive way of presenting a story that is verbose, lightning-fast, stylishly edited and at the same time flows organically from one sequence to another. One might require more than a few viewings to sink in all that the screenplay has to offer but his films are always intelligible to someone who is willing to pay attention. The fact that his films are so entertaining makes the re-visits that much more enjoyable. With every subsequent film, Sorkin’s screenplays have gotten faster and denser and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that after Molly’s Game — which is one of my all-time favourite films — The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes Sorkin’s breakneck speed and absorbing storytelling techniques and style of presentation a few notches up and yet retains its charm and impact.
The film follows the trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Nixon government holds them responsible for inciting riots that resulted in over 400 people ending up in hospitals. The Chicago Seven were acquitted of all charges earlier by Ramsay Clark, the Attorney General of the United States before the Nixon government took over power in January 10th 1969. Clarke’s department found no evidence against the Seven for inciting violence or threatening peace. Ironically, the same investigation found enough proof against the police, who the department believed, initiated the mauling and brutalizing of the peaceful protestors. The Nixon government wanted the Chicago Seven buried under a feudal and outdated Rap Brown Law that was created to silence black protests. Nixon and his Attorney General, John Mitchell believed that these protestors posed a greater threat to the American way of life than anything else and they had to be dealt with.
The first 10-15 minutes of the film is spent on showing us — through some intelligent and beautifully edited sequences — how the 7 men, who are at the heart of the court proceeding, got where they are. We are also shown how the government side of the story is developing through a sequence involving Attorney General John Mitchell and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the Federal Prosecutor in the case. Schultz is not convinced if they have enough against the Seven to get them indicted and he expresses his views rather freely in front of the Attorney General. He also believes that the Rap Brown Law is outdated and is not relevant to the current case.
The Attorney General is of a totally different opinion. He wants the Seven implicated and put in prison for the maximum amount of time that the Rap Brown law offers. He wants to make an example of them and then bring the rest of the “free speech” lobby of the country on their knees using the indictment as a poster of what could happen to them if they didn’t fall in line. The Attorney General forcefully moulds Schultz to his will with Schultz expressing one last concern before taking the case. “On top of everything we are giving them exactly what they want, a stage and an audience”, murmurs Schultz to his boss before the scene transitions to the exterior of the courthouse on the first day of the hearing and we see a sea of protestors shouting slogans and holding placards in support of the Seven.
The court proceedings transform from shocking to bizarre with every passing day as it becomes apparent that the men being tried are there for no other reason but for the men in power to see them suffer. What adds to the insanity of the whole ordeal is how the judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) conducts the proceedings. He makes it abundantly clear through his rulings and leveling of contempt charges on the accused and the defense attorneys that he will accept no other outcome to the case than the conviction of the Seven. Frank Langella is so hateful in his rendering of the judge that it becomes interesting for the audiences to wait for the moment when he will be finally brought down and the accused will get the better of him. He stoops down to such lows that it becomes impossible to accept him for what he is and all I could feel for the character was contempt. Langella is terrific in his performance.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale who was in Chicago for 4 hours on the day of the riots and was willfully added to the case of the Seven since he was a member of the “Black Panthers” group. The idea was to make the Seven look more threatening to the jury by having a Black Panther in the lineup. Seale was awaiting trial for a different case that was heaped on him. He is denied counsel throughout the trial and he is not even allowed to represent himself. The Judge uses such outrageous logics to deny him counsel that it proves to be too much for the defense lawyer of the Seven to fathom and he vociferously mouths his shock and contempt at this grave injustice. Towards the end of the trial, Seale is gagged and silenced when he tries to mouth his displeasure on how he is being treated. This injustice is so far-fetched that even the Federal prosecutor expresses his displeasure at what was happening.
The film is so high on shock value and entertainment that almost every scene has something or the other interesting to offer. As we see the trial unfold, we are frequently taken back in time to show us key incidents from multiple points of a view that not only give us fresh new perspectives on what was unfolding in the courtroom but also let us understand the insanity of it all. I just loved how beautifully Sorkin writes the bit that explains how utterly out of context, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne)’s “Blood will flow on the street” statement was taken. The sequences documenting how the two spates of violence erupted is envisioned, shot and edited with authority. These sequences gives us an exact feel of how it might have felt to be a part of this chaos and how almost everything that the protestors were doing or saying was taken out of context including the chants of “Om” by a poet that is sighted as a war cry during the trial.
It was amazing to note how funny this film was even though it deals with a gut-wrenching subject. Most of the comedy is situational and is triggered by the character of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). They are the most colorful and out of their minds hippies whose sarcasm is so close to reality that their own words are often used against them in the trial. Baron is always a delight in everything that he does and here his dialogues with the Judge Hoffman and the standup comedy bits that he is shown performing are a proof of his control on his performances. Eddie Redmayne is a bankable and likeable star and he comes into his own in the second half of the film.
Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the Defense Counsel for the Seven is wonderful. As the case proceeds, we see his character lose his cool gradually with what the judge does to the rule books. With each hearing he gets more and more radicalized not by sharing inclining to the views of the protestors but by just witnessing what the government was prepared to do to silence their voices. We see this happen through a gradual progression and Rylance uses his considerable acting prowess to make it feel real, organic and affecting.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s attorney Schultz keeps getting increasingly frustrated at what he sees being done in the name of law. By the time we reach the climax, he starts breaking the rules set for him and starts acting in a manner befitting to a law abiding citizen. Levitt has a lot of charm and likeability and he uses that to his advantage. The fact that his character has a lot of good vibes going for it also works in his favor. Michael Keaton in a brief appearance grabs attention with his commanding presence and trademark contempt for oppressive authority. He documents his disgust through his expressions and they reach the audience without any lapse.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 assumes a lot more importance not only because of how well Sorkin writes and directs the film but also because of the time that we are living in. America has not been this divided since the civil rights movements and it just took George Floyd’s death to bust open the doors on the terrifying brutality and subjugation that a large stratum of their people are living under. The film couldn’t have arrived at a better and a more relevant time and it just goes on to show that only the years have changed but the situation and the problems still remain the same.
Having said that, the film wants us to believe that a persistent fight against injustice always triumphs insurmountable odds. At its core, it is a very hopeful and positive film because of how it ends and what the future brings for the Seven. It is also one of the most entertaining and re-watchable films that Netflix has come out with in years. Aaron Sorkin is quickly creating a niche for his style of direction and writing in Hollywood that I believe will witness sizeable a growth over the years. I am already waiting for his next directorial effort.