WE just saw our first movie this year that is of sure Oscar calibre, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of Chicago 7”, first released by Netflix in theaters last September so it can qualify in the Oscars, and now available for streaming. We became a solid admirer of Sorkin as a screenwriter after watching his “The Social Network” (2010), which is about how Facebook was born. We’ve seen it several times and for this, he won both the Oscar and Golden Globe award for best screenplay.
His film debut as a director is “Molly’s Game” (2017) with Jessica Chastain in the engrossing real life story of an Olympian who became an operator of an illegal pokers game for celebrities. He now writes and directs “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, a legal drama based on the true story of the anti-Vietnam war protesters who were arrested and charged with conspiracy for inciting riots that turned violent and bloody in the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Richard Nixon won the election and his new Attorney General ordered his lawyer to prosecute the leaders of the protest, charging them with conspiracy and inciting to riot, to set an example. The 7 defendants are Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat”), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of “Succession”), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), pacifist dad David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and two fall guys who didn’t know at all why they were included in the lineup, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).
Black Panther Part leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen of “Watchmen”) is also part of the group as the 8th member, even he was not at all in the riots, but he is later separated from the rest due to a case of mistrial.
If you’re familiar with Sorkin’s work starting with “A Few Good Men”, you’d know his specialty are highly charged courtroom scenes and they are on full display here during the trial scenes. The trial ran for almost half a year but the film has an engrossing narrative structure that alternates the courtroom scenes with scenes showing what led to the riots, all masterfully edited to make a gripping and compelling narrative.
The film has a huge ensemble cast and Sorkin does a good job of juggling all of them. All the 8 defendants are given time to shine, but those with the biggest roles are Sacha Baron Cohen who gets to steal his scenes with some choice funny lines as flamboyant Yippie agitator Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, the student leader who’d later become a U.S. senator and husband of Jane Fonda for 17 years.
Abdul Mateen is also given the chance to stand out in several scenes with him attacking his role as the wrongly black political activist with much conviction and ferocity, specially after the prejudiced judge ordered that he be beaten up.
Outside of the defendants, the stand outs are Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the dedicated lead defense attorney whose been cited for contempt several times; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz, the assistant federal prosecutor who believed from the start that they have a weak case; and Frank Langella as the Judge in charge of the case, who’s obviously so hostile and biased against the defendants.
Also splendid is Michael Keaton as the former Attorney General Ramsey Clarke who testifies that it’s actually the police who instigated the riots. He appears only in two scenes but really makes his mark.
The film’s final scene when Tom Hayden is called to give his closing statement in court, and he uses the opportunity to recite the names of the American soldiers who died in the Vietnam war since the trial began, was so emotionally shattering for us. We can’t hold back our tears as the end credits is shown for the film’s brilliance and an epilogue that tells us what happened later to all the characters involved in the trial, including the repulsive judge.
The movie is so timely and relevant today as what happened then is still happening now, with authorities stopping at nothing to foil any opposition, even constitutional protest, and later covering up their misdeeds. Sorkin as writer-director is a master storyteller who unfolds the narrative with much conviction, making the whole thing so compelling and satisfying, but sprinkled with amusing moments of dark humor.