Released: 16th October
Seen: 13th December
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Say, for the sake of argument, that you’re part of a group of protestors who disagrees with actions that’re taken by the president and decide the best way to do it is to get a large group of people to march and demand that someone listen to their grievances. Now, while this is a right of the people it is often denied by those in charge who would instead choose to ignore them… or, as a random example, send a large amount of police to instigate a riot, throw tear gas at peaceful protestors and beat innocent bystanders with clubs and shields only to then turn around and blame the very protestors who have been attacked.
So, with that random example… am I describing the Chicago Seven during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or am I describing Lafayette Park from June of 2020? Turns out that we haven’t learned from history, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is here to point out how closely we seem to be repeating it.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a dramatisation of the protest-turned-riot that happened in 1968 when a group of 8 men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to start a riot. The film goes through the entire trial from the brutal ways that the 8th man in the cast, Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was treated by the judge to the antics of Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen). Throughout the trial it slowly becomes apparent that this case isn’t about a riot, but a political trial against a group of people who dared to say they didn’t want to be part of the Vietnam war and, like most things that’re political, this court case is a circus of monkeys throwing their poop everywhere..
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, you can tell this was made by the same guy who made the walk and talk shots from West Wing into the icons that they are. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is almost written intentionally to be delivered at double speed with everyone getting quick quippy lines to throw back and forth. His script is almost airtight and his direction pulls the best out of his performers, even with a two hour runtime it doesn’t feel like there’s any flab here. He’s streamlined everything down to the essentials, and what’s there is powerful. Sure there’s stuff missing from the case (it was a months long case, that’s inevitable) but Sorkin has done his best to take the best moments of insanity and created a cohesive case that really gives you a sense of just how odd this trial was.
It’s unavoidable to spot the similarities between the events of 1968 and the events of… well, any protest in the last few years that isn’t an Alt-Right Proud Boys Nazi. It’s unavoidable because The Trial of the Chicago 7 might as well include a character holding a large sign that says “Everything that you see is happening right now!”. It really isn’t subtle about whose side it’s on or the message it’s sending and it does so with gusto. Granted it never goes as far as BlackKklansman did by just cutting to modern day footage, but you have the feeling that if any scene played on for another minute that it might be unable to resist cutting to 2020 protests.
The one thing that it doesn’t do is really represent ALL of the Chicago 7, in fact it really focuses on about four members of that group. Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman get the bulk of the attention, then Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) are where most of the screen time goes. Sure, the others have their moments but some of them are really just there as props for the main story and considering that there were 8 men on trial, it’d be nice if they were all able to be remembered after the movie ends. As it is, I maybe only remember one other character from the movie, and that’s only because the actor appeared in American Horror Story and seeing him playing a peaceful non-violent protestor has novelty value.
Fortunately, those who do get to be front and centre take full advantage of it, especially Sasha Baron Cohen who easily gives the best performance of the entire film as Abbie Hoffman (seriously, if they ever do a biopic on Abbie Hoffman’s life, Sasha had better be the only person they consider). It’s an acting tour de force by everyone involved, they never slow down or bring anything less than 100% and each actor is blessed with a moment that’s almost designed to show off their skills.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulls the hard double duty of telling a story of a historical event while also linking it closely to modern day events, and it does it really well. From top to bottom this is a great piece of cinema with a stellar cast who give some of the best performances of their careers. If nothing else, watch this because we’re currently living through a period where history has begun to repeat itself and maybe we need to change how it ends this time.