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Review: 'The Trial Of The Chicago 7' is a Tale of Then and Now

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 16, 2020
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'  

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" is the film for our time. And a strange and unrestful time it is.

And was.

Civil and racial tensions are reaching a boiling point with rioting in the streets. The excessive and deadly use of force by law enforcement too often goes unpunished. A United States President displays a proud and blatant contempt for protesters. There is in-fighting within the Democratic party on how far left the party should lean. The country is vehemently divided.

That was 1969. But that is also 2020.

The difference is that by the time the infamous conspiracy trial had begun, President Nixon was already in office and our country was already under conservative Republican rule -- which would come crashing down a few years later with the Watergate scandal.

We are currently in a gripping, nail-biting, nerve-wracking election-result-wait to see what fate has in store for us.

So "The Trial of the Chicago 7" drops like a genuinely frightening house of horrors mirror into our past — a painful reminder that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in this country, because they don't really change. We are just blinded by the illusion that they change. Well, those of us who want to be are, anyway.

In 2010, Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay to Davin Fincher's "The Social Network" and captured a cultural time-shift that has marked the last decade in most respects. The political relevancy of social media cannot be overstated. Just look to the last election.

Now, ten years later, Sorkin is at it again, this time as writer and director, delivering a film that seems to define the times we live in. Perhaps this time it is by sheer happenstance, since the genesis of the film goes back a ways. Still, it's important to note.

It was 13 years ago, even before "The Social Network," that Sorkin was called over to Steven Spielberg's home to chat about a project the celebrated director wanted Sorkin to pen. Turns out Spielberg's idea about what happened in Chicago in 1969 was something Sorkin had always been interested in. Or so he told Spielberg. The truth is, he had no idea about the tumultuous events or the insane trial, but he set about researching.

Over a decade later, during the strangest of times in our country and the world, Sorkin has offered up a ridiculously riveting, masterfully crafted, brilliantly acted, and astonishingly executed work. Most definitely the best film of 2020 to date, but, more importantly, a film that captures a turbulent time and an incredible event in our history, and acts as an unnerving warning about what our future might look like if we keep making the same mistakes.

Two films have previously taken on this story: "The Chicago 8," made in 2010 and starring Philip Baker Hall, and "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8," a 1987 HBO docudrama that featured an all-star cast and incorporated some of the real-life figures involved. The latter won the then-CableAce Award for Best Dramatic Special, and is an interesting work. Neither, however captured the magnitude of the trial in terms of its place and its meaning in history. (Haskell Wexler's 1970 landmark film "Medium Cool" was peripherally about the riots).

Sorkin has smartly set most of his narrative in the courtroom, flashing back, when necessary, to build on story and character. It's a master class in screenwriting, and sticks very closely to the original transcript of the trial (as scary as that might seem).

A primer: In 1968, the U.S. was in disarray. Lyndon Johnson was president, but not seeking reelection. Richard Nixon was the Republican candidate; Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The Vietnam War raged with no end in sight, with casualties mounting daily. Anti-war protests were on the rise. And, in August, a host of activists came together outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to peacefully protest the war. Instead of being allowed a forum, they were tear gassed and beaten by the Chicago police and the National Guard.

The Johnson Administration, led by Attorney General Ramsey Clark, chose not to bring any charges against any of the protesters. A year later that changed, when Nixon took office and his Attorney General, John Mitchell, did a 180, driven by a petty vendetta against Clark.

Eight activists were charged with conspiring to cross state lines to incite a riot (a law born in the South from racism). Of these eight, only seven are represented. And it's all presided over by a hateful, super-partial judge you have to see to believe.

The "7" we see in Sorkin's film include two Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); two Your International Party members ("Yippies"), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron-Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a pacifist and the head of The Mobe (The Natural Mobilization to End the Vietnam War) — also the oldest of the "7."

Two curious defendants, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), were among the protesters, but their inclusion remains a bit of a mystery until later.

Finally, the eighth figure, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), had the misfortune of being in Chicago for only a few hours on that fateful day, but being lumped in with the "7" anyway.

Many of the most incredible and angering moments in the movie are centered on Seale and his mistreatment by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), simply because his attorney is in the hospital and cannot be present.

The courtroom proceedings are spellbinding, and Sorkin breaks them up at exactly the right moments to fill us in on background. The riot scenes are also well placed. Kudos to editor Alan Baumgarten for his well-crafted work.

This is only Sorkin's second time as director (the first was the highly underrated "Molly's Game" with Jessica Chastain), and he knows that the key to a film's success is casting, so he has pulled out all the stops.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is spot-on as an ambitious prosecutor who happens to also have integrity. Mark Rylance excels as The 7's exasperated defense attorney, who cannot believe some of what he is witnessing.

Langella is a fascinating kind of vile here. He's a horror we all know. He's that racist uncle we have to spend holidays tolerating, or the old-fashioned father-in-law who wishes things were "the way they used to be." The problem here is that this is the man sitting on the judge's bench. It's a terrifically terrifying performance.

Abdul-Mateen II sears the screen as Seale, and his final outburst is just extraordinary.

Baron-Cohen and Strong lead the pack of 7 and toe the comedy-drama line really nicely. Baron-Cohen, in particular, delves deep inside Hoffman (the Hoffman who isn't the judge) and finds surprising nuances. Redmayne also unearths layers to Hayden, the man who would go on to marry Jane Fonda (and then cheat on her, the fool!).

And Michael Keaton rocks a cameo.

Daniel Pemberton's score is powerful, and Phedon Papamichael's camerawork dazzles.

There is a moment near the end of the film between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden that speaks volumes about the differences on the left — then and now — and about that particular evolution via the last few decades of our political system and who we were, and are, as a people. The scene is a fairly simple one about how the two men are on the same side but see the execution of their message very differently, and how, in that execution, the fate of the future of the country could lie in the balance. It left me speechless. And holding my breath. For November 3rd. And beyond.

"The Trial of Chicago 7" inspires hope — something we all desperately need right now.

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" is playing in select theaters and begins streaming on Netflix on October 16th.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute

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