Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more timely than ever
In 1969, eight men were put on trial for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to start a riot. These people were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremey Strong), leaders of the Youth National Party (Yippies), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), leaders of Students for a Democratic society, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), leader of the Mobilization to end the Vietnam War, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national chairman of the Blank Panther Party, and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), two random protestors. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, directed by Aaron Sorkin, this group of men was called the “all~star team” of protestors by the attorney general, but he rather refer to them as, “the schoolboys”. They each were each the leader of their major political group and led one of the biggest protests to end the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic Convention. However, this protest quickly led to one of the biggest riots of the time.
Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Barah Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) walk into their first day of court. Rubin, holding an egg which was thrown at him from the crowd of reporters.
Ramsey Clarke (Michael Keaton) was the attorney general during the riots, and was dead set against prosecuting the eight. After the 1968 election, Nixon was selected and new Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) had other thoughts. Mitchell says that the group is, “Petulant and dangerous. We watched for a decade while these rebels without a job who never bothered to get their hands dirty fighting the enemy, tell us how to prosecute a war. Well, the decade is over, the grownups are back and I deem these s***ty little fairies to be a threat to national security. So they’re gonna spend their thirties in a federal facility, real time.”
Clearly Mitchell had ulterior motives, and even the lead prosecutor Richard Shultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was worried that it would come across as the government restricting free speech. Shultz didn’t feel confident in prosecuting as he believed that the police may have started the riot. But at the end of the day, he couldn’t pass this career opportunity up to be a lead prosecutor for the attorney general.
These eight people were put on trial with charges of up to 10 years in a federal prison. There was no doubt that they were a factor in the riots; however, of the eight, three were different from the others. Seale came to Chicago to represent the Blank Panther Party, give a speech, then leave. He was only in Chicago for four hours and had never talked to any of the other defendants before, yet was put on trial for intent to start a riot and conspiracy. It seems illogical that they would try Seale with the others, but then again he was black. Right from the beginning, it was shown that Seale was treated differently than the other defendants. For one, Seale wasn’t being represented by anyone. The other seven defendants were represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), one of the top civil rights lawyers in the country, and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), one of the top first amendment litigators. Seale’s attorney, Charles Gary, became ill and hospitalized. Gary wasn’t able to work until further notice, and Seale would not use Kunstler as an attorney. Seale had a proper hearing where he requested to move the date for his trial, but it was denied. When the trial began and Seale tried to say that he didn’t have representation, his constitutional right, he was told to sit down and shut up. He tried many times to get Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) to listen but was met with contempt of court warnings. Seale tried to represent himself and cross-examine the witnesses speaking about him, he was denied. It was blatant racism and Langella did an exceptional job playing a villainous judge that you could hate with all your heart.
Police forcing Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to sit down after he tried to ask for his 6th amendment right to an attorney.
The other two who didn’t make sense were Lee Weiner and John Froines. Even they didn’t know why they were there. Froines said, “I can understand why they are trying to smoke everyone else, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what the two of us are doing here”
Weiner responded, “I feel exactly the same way, but this is the academy awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an honor to be nominated.”
They were just two protestors out of many, yet they were being tried for conspiracy and intent to start a riot like the rest of them. As Abbie Hoffman later says to them, “You’re a give back. They give the jury a couple of guys they can acquit, so they feel better about finding the rest of us guilty.”
These are the main characters in Aaron Sorkin’s new historical legal drama. When you watch a movie with a Sorkin script you expect an excellent screenplay with quick witty dialogue to keep you engaged, and he delivered. Sorkin begins with a message from Lyndon B. Johnson about the increasing number of draftees in the Vietnam War. It then shifts into a montage including the draft, Martin Luther King jr giving a speech against the war - and his subsequent assassination-, and then Robert Kennedy giving a speech about Martin Luther King jr’s death - and his subsequent assassination. The montage then smoothly flows to our main characters giving speeches about the upcoming protest, and their differing views. We hear Tom Hayden telling his crowd, “So we’re going to Chicago, young people, by busloads, to show our solidarity, our disgust, but most importantly…”
Abbie Hoffman then finishes the very different sentence to a laughing crowd, “To get laid by someone you just met.” He continues saying sincerely, “Were going to Chicago peacefully, we are,” then starting to raise his voice with anger, “ but if we’re met there with violence, you better believe that we’re going to meet that violence with...!”
David Dillinger finishes the sentence this time to his son saying calmy, “Nonviolence, always nonviolence, and that’s without exception.” Dillinger answers his son and wife's questions by saying “If the police try to arrest me, I’ll do what I always do and what I’ve taught you to do, which is very calmly and very politely…”
Bobby Seale finishes the montage and streamline of sentences with “F**k the motherf**kers up.” to show the final comparison of characters' views on the upcoming protest. This montage not only lets us know who the characters are going to be but also shows us their perspective on the upcoming protests and a bit of their personality.
Police and protestors clash on a hill. Their first altercation leading up to the Democratic Convention.
We see that Hayden and Davis are meticulous and educational, starting civilized protests in hope that our governmental system will work. Hoffman and Rubin on the other hand show us the Yippie/Hippie perspective. They’re trying to end the war, but also to stick it to the man and have a good time. We can tell they are a pot-smoking, no care group of people, but also see that the words of Abbie Hoffman are moving, engaging, and thought out -which it may not seem at first glance though his thick Boston-Californian accent. Oh, and they’re also the type of people who teach a class how to make a homemade molotov. We see that Dillinger is a boy scout leader and a father; an average white citizen that wants to help make change in the world through peaceful protests. Finally, we see Bobby Seale. He is pessimistic for civil justice and rightfully so. To understand his view, we hear Seale say, “Dr. King is dead. He had a dream, but now he has a f**kin’ bullet in his head. Martin’s dead, Malcolm’s (X) dead, Medgar’s (Evers) dead, Bobby’s (Kennedy) dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we gonna try something else.” This is Seale’s view on the world. In addition, we learn that he is going to Chicago for 4 hours just to give a speech, which does involve the phrase “fry the pigs”, but for nothing else.
Rubin smokes a joint and teaches a class how to make a homemade molotov cocktail.
Sorkin uses a nonlinear structure to tell the story, bouncing from the courtroom, the days leading up to and the protest, and the time after court where the defendants meet. When I scrolled through Netflix and selected this movie, I was hoping for feels of A Few Good Men, Sorkin’s other legal drama - with its quick back and forth and epic monologues, and sharp lawyer moves that probably couldn’t happen in real life. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find this script felt more real and held more emotions in every exchange. When Seale was begging for his rights, or when Judge Hoffman was threatening the defendants with contempt of courts, it hurt. You felt for these characters and felt that you were in the courtroom with them, rather than just spectating.
Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) hands out contempt of courts left and right in his villainous role.
This movie was led by its amazing performances. Rylance and Langella were tremendous forces. The prior being a saving hope as the defense lawyer, trying to manage his way through bias, racism, and a terrible judge. The latter being an all time villain, reminding me of the award winning performance of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Rylance made you hate him, from his racist behavior denying Seale his rights and even sending him to be beat, to his clear favoritism of the prosecutors, blocking witnesses and testimonies that could help the defendants win the case. No doubt both of these actors could be in contention for an oscar come April. Another spectacular performance was by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. Cohen does an excellent job playing the charismatic Hoffman, having great comedic timing as usual while also staying grounded and playing the full of emotion Hoffman. Cohen steals the screen whenever he’s on. If it’s giving his standup/narration to a crowd, getting on Judge Hoffman’s nerves by claiming that he is his lost father, or in his final and most important scene as a witness taking the stand. Cohen is likely to be the front runner for the nomination from this amazing ensemble performance. It is likely a major shift compared to his upcoming film, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Truly everyone gave a great performance and could all be considered for an Oscar nomination, but unfortunately, there are only so many spots.
Hoffman talks to a crowd of students in his iconic American flag shirt.
What might be most remarkable about this movie is that it was filmed and written before May 25th, the day of George Floyd’s murder. Early on in the movie, we see the crowds outside the courthouse chanting, “The whole world is watching!” This is the slogan and chant heard throughout the movie and could be seen as the theme for both the movie and today. In the movie, scenes of police brutality to peaceful protesters near mirror videos and photos taken from the Black Lives Matter Protests only months ago. One was marching to stop a war, the other marching for their lives, but both showed how police need to be held accountable for the actions they make and can be just as guilty as the supposed rioters. Sorkin is making it clear that the “system” was broken in 1969 and it still is now. Sorkin, who wrote West Wing, is not afraid to get political and made it clear in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin makes it clear, the whole world is watching, and what we see is a need for change.
Hoffman walks up the courthouse steps surrounded by a crowd chanting, "The whole world is watching!"
Rubin helps a defenseless protestor after being tear gassed and beaten with batons by the police.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, released Oct 16 on Netflix, is a must see movie. With there being so few movies in general this year, it is surely a front runner for best picture, best screenplay, and more. This movie also speaks to the current political and social climate of today. Even though the events take place in 1968-1969, it is more relevant than ever. Sorkin puts on a masterclass of writing and directing the flow of the movie. It could feel like a stage play at times, but I actually found that enjoyable. Go to Netflix and watch this movie as quickly as you can for an engaging, thought provoking statement about our society and government.