Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7

In a year which has seen both a rise of public protest and attempts by both state and federal to squelch freedom of assembly comes a timely film from writer/director Aaron Sorkin looking back at the anti–Vietnam War protesters known as the Chicago Seven. While jumping over large parts of the trial, and using flashbacks to reveal events out of order, The Trial of the Chicago 7 certainly takes dramatic license. As a result, it's not a great trial movie, but is still an engaging and moving film.

Leading the protest of the 1968 Democratic National Convention which ended in police violence, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) were all charged with crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot. Also on trial was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who despite not being present at the riots (or connected to the other defendants), found himself guilty by association for the inflammatory speech he gave that day.

With such a talented cast and a trial that lasted more than six months, there's much that didn't make it into the film. Not all of the eight defendants get meaty roles here, in fact about half of them are mostly forgettable. Cohen and Redmayne get the juicer roles as the more outrageous and mainstream bookends of the group. Lynch is great in limited time as David Dellinger while Abdul-Mateen II steals several scenes, including the most shocking court scene of the film. Frank Langella is perfectly loathsome as the judge sneering his nose at the anti-establishment while gleefully taking every opportunity to make questionable rulings that even the prosecution begins to question. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is given the role of the conflicted prosecutor who isn't given enough screentime to adequately explore his objections to the trial.

More than anything else, Sorkin's script is a love letter to democracy and its citizens holding their government accountable for their actions (or inaction). There's plenty of corruption here that that film highlights both in the Chicago Police's actions before and during the riots and in the bureaucracy and an ineptitude that makes you question the oxymoron of a "fair trial." It's a reminder that democracy comes with the price of vigilance and participation, and even then it can be corrupted at the very roots. It's here, and in humanizing the most prominent members of the defense, that Sorkin succeeds in crafting the heart of the story he wants to tell.

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