Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Robbins, Daniel Flaherty, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Mark Rylance, Ben Shenkman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton
Running Time: 130 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
If it's become customary to refer to any controversial or contested trial that captivates the public's imagination as a "circus," 1969's trial of a group of seven anti-Vietnam protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention feels like the starting point. That Netflix's The Trial of the Chicago 7 is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin pretty much insures that we won't be subjected to a dry, biographical history lesson recounting the timeline of events surrounding this pivotal event. But there's this feeling that even if he did take that more conventional approach, the material would still be inescapably compelling and entertaining enough on its own merits. But this is Sorkin we're talking about so it's not like anyone is expecting the writer behind The Social Network and The West Wing to phone it in. And sure enough, he doesn't.
Better recognized for having other filmmakers adapt his sometimes polarizing perspectives, there was a question mark surrounding how Sorkin's decisions behind the camera would affect this material given that this is only the Oscar-winning screenwriter's second directorial feature. So while we'll never know how his script could have turned out in other hands, it's tough to care when the version we do get leaves this much of an impression. With an all-star cast at his disposal, he manages to give this multi-faceted, politically and ethically complicated true story the dramatic heft it deserves while expertly balancing many of its comedic, absurdist moments. And there's no doubt that this trial is absurd on every possible level, made that much more remarkable by the fact that much of what we see did actually happen, if you give or take some details and grant the usual degree of creative license.
It's August 1968 when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) president Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and community organizer Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Youth International Party (Yippie) founders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), along with Vietnam mobilization leader (MOBE) David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and anti-war activists Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) protest at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, kicking off a chain of events that results in violent rioting. Five months later, all of them, in addition to an eighth defendant, Black Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), are charged and eventually put on trial, with the Attorney General appointing young, idealstic lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and veteran litigator Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) as prosecutors for the case.
With the extremely prejudiced Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) on the bench, defense attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankman) attempt to represent their rather uncontrollable clients, most notably the disruptive Abbie Hoffman and self-professed non-client Seale, who forgoes legal counsel to instead receive advice from Illinois Black Panther chapter chairman Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in court. With the events of that summer coming into clearer view through key witness testimony, the proceedings soon careen out of control, with Judge Hoffman's controversial, biased rulings making it impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial, exposing the flaws within the government, judicial system, and further opening the wounds of political and racial unrest throughout the country.
As far as the nation's most ridiculous trials go, this one's right up there, as the film starts in an almost jarringly scattershot montage style, introducing us to the key principle players in court, while interspersing often uproariously comical legal scenes with the fateful events that took place in Chicago. Tonally, this isn't the easiest balancing act, but Sorkin masters it, establishing all of their out-sized personalities and motivations, with Cohen's Abbie Hoffman and Strong's Jerry Rubin being the most radicalized of the group, easily getting under the quick-tempered, frustratingly illogical judge's skin. An early highlight sees Judge Hoffman constantly interrupting Schultz's opening statement to reiterate that there's "no relation" between he and the defendant. If ever there was a mix-up no one would ever make, it's that.
This entire film really belongs to an award-worthy Langella, who just nails the staggering incompetence of a man who makes Judge Lance Ito look like RBG. Senile, racist and mind-blowingly ignorant, his actions are hilariously inept until it's obvious the stakes have gotten too high and, we're left to process the immense consequences of this eventual verdict, along with all the potential ramifications surrounding that. It's funny until it isn't, and that line's very visible once it's crossed. Much of the turmoil concerns the eighth defendent, Bobby Seals, who besides probably not even deserving of being there, is shut down in escalatingly humiliating ways by the judge, reaching a fever pitch toward the trial's end. You almost lose track of how many charges of contempt are laid down, especially on Mark Rylance's defense attorney, who eventually has enough.
Everyone's had enough, with some faring better than others at hiding it. The two bedrocks who seem incapable of breaking are Redmayne's logically level-headed Tom Hayden and JGL's Schultz, the latter of whom isn't ignorant to the shenanigans unfolding while still retaining his loyalty to the law. A park encounter midway through with him and Hoffman and Rubin truly reveals what type of a person he is, conistent with his character in court and a reminder that boths sides are being professionally and personally victimized by this sham of a trial, regardless of how much weight the charges carry. There's also a brief, but great performance from Michael Keaton as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may or may not turn out to be the star witness the defense is banking on.
The flashbacks to the actual riots are powerfully filmed by Sorkin, especially revealing in terms of what it says about Hayden, who is intentionally portrayed as kind of a milquetoast character up to that point. This changes in a major way toward the end, leading into an over-the-top, but still immensely satisfying resolution that seems completely called for whether or not that's how things exactly unfolded in reality. It works for this film, which is really all that matters.
The elephant in the room is that the timing couldn't be appropriate or strangely uncomfortable, reminding us just how little has actually changed in the decades since. It's no longer a question of whether something like this could happen again, or even worse. It has and is. That thought never really leaves you as these events unfold, holding up a mirror to a very specific time and place in our culture and political climate that still very much resonates. It's an unpredictably wild trip, and even if you know how it all pans out, it's difficult to still not become enraptured in the proceedings and eventual fallout for these characters. Of course, so much of that impact stems from the fact that it's wrestling with issues still haven't been fully resolved over half a century later.