Director Aaron Sorkin’s latest drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, reminds its audience that problems with the U.S. policing system have existed for decades. The film recounts the true story of seven men who were indicted for inciting violent protests against the Vietnam War. These men hail from groups including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Youth International Party (YIP), and the Black Panthers. As they butt heads and figure out how to collectively avoid a sentence, they find themselves pitted against a clever prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and crooked Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
The Trial of the Chicago 7 begins with a montage of various revolutionaries planning to congregate in Chicago to protest during the Democratic National Convention. These first few minutes are enough to give us a sense of the key players in the ensuing storm, which include Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the cool-headed leader of the SDS, and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), the lax, charismatic head of the Yippies. Throughout the film, Hayden’s straitlaced demeanor clashes with Hoffman’s belief that the seven should seize their moment in the spotlight of U.S. society and use the trial to further protest injustice. Redmayne and Cohen pull off their characters adeptly, enabling the film to achieve a balance between suspense, humor, and reality that isn’t found often in legal dramas.
The film has no shortage of talent in the rest of the cast, either. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), for example, offers a refreshing take on the comedic sidekick trope. Though Rubin is part of the Youth International Party, Sorkin gives him agency rather than simply making him Abbie’s lackey. And Langella pulls off a spectacular performance as Judge Julius Hoffman, if only for the fact that he makes viewers want to reach through the screen and smack him across the face.
Sorkin enhances the actors’ talent through the clever use of props and gestures. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, a simple act like declining to sip Johnnie Walker whisky with the other men in the room, donning a black jacket, or removing a police badge all become significant. These actions indicate the subtleties in characters’ relationships with one another, as well as each character’s true intentions. Props and gestures enable Sorkin to explore the complexity of Schultz, who is, by all intents and purposes, on the judge’s side. He wants to get the Chicago 7 convicted, and he truly does believe they are anarchists. And yet, along the way, Sorkin makes viewers question just how terrible this prosecutor is. It’s hard to tell whether or not viewers are meant to hate a character when he sometimes stands for the right things and sometimes for the wrong ones.
Though the film has a specific, tangible antagonist—the clearly biased and racist Hoffman—it also identifies much greater, systemic issues within the criminal justice system and U.S. society as the culprits. This double focus on the enemy at hand and the enemy within makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 even more powerful. And when the film does show us some amount of justice being achieved, when the truth comes out and the courtroom goes wild, the viewers can feel the righteousness that must have echoed throughout the room. The high points in the film make us feel hopeful for a better future, and characters like hardworking defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) remind us that some people still care about what’s fair.
Yet, the film serves as a bleak reminder of how often justice is rejected for the sake of convenience and order. And it is for that very reason that this film is a must-see for today’s U.S. audience. The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells its viewers that a movement is not just a moment in history that’s over when a hashtag stops trending, but rather a living, breathing effort created and grown by thousands of people throughout the nation. By showing us the past, it gives us hope for a better future in which people fight for what they believe in.
Photo Courtesy of Netflix