Throughout his career writing for film, television and the stage, from The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Newsroom to A Few Good Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin has shown a consuming fascination with the trembling institutions of American politics and justice. His powerful and timely second feature as writer-director, The Trial of the Chicago 7, shows Sorkin in his sweet spot, burrowing with needling curiosity, impassioned indignation and juicy oratory into the infamous six-month courtroom circus stemming from charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The Netflix feature — acquired from Paramount and opening in select theaters Sept. 25 ahead of its Oct. 16 bow on the streaming platform — has traveled a long road to the screen. Sorkin’s script originally was intended for Steven Spielberg, but the 2007 WGA strike caused the project to be suspended and the original director to move on to other commitments. Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller were both rumored as possible replacements until Sorkin was encouraged by Spielberg to direct it himself, having gotten his feet wet in that role in 2018 with Molly’s Game.
That film was a mixed bag, its crackling writing and sharp performances undercut by its windy excesses and cumbersome flashback structure. Those flaws have been conquered here in a movie that’s as dense with witty dialogue, significant characters, factoids, time shifts and multiperspectivity as anything Sorkin has written. But it avoids the qualities often perceived as flaws by his critics, namely the tendency toward unwieldy exposition and soapbox grandiloquence, the latter remarkably so given the courtroom setting.
The Chicago Seven chapter has inspired numerous films, from Haskell Wexler’s docu-fiction treatment of the DNC protests, Medium Cool, through Woody Allen’s satirical take on the trial in Bananas, to Brett Morgen’s mix of archival footage with animated scenes based on court transcripts, Chicago 10. Sorkin comes closer to the approach of documentaries spawned by the case, cogently dramatizing events in and around the trail in a fluid back and forth structure that gradually pieces together what went down in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night of Aug. 28, 1968.
As has often proven the case with films grounded in history during this turbulent year, events of a half-century ago have an uncanny way of reflecting the bitterly polarized America of today, as neoconservative power plays grow ever more aggressive.
Just witnessing Chicago cops remove their badges and name tags as tensions mount in a clash with protestors sends chills down the spine. The very basis of the court case, which is stacked against the protest groups while evidence points to police as the antagonists escalating the violence, has stinging relevance given the unrest that has shaken the country in recent months. Tear gas, riot clubs and militarized federal troops have given 2020 an uneasy resemblance to 1968. And the manipulation of specious conspiracy charges has horrifying reverberations in the age of QAnon.
With the Trump administration now itching to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court — likely removing any semblance of balance from the highest juridical body in the land — the spectacle of a biased, authoritarian judge who has made up his mind about the defendants before the trial even gets under way is sobering food for thought. That high-handed jurist, Judge Julius Hoffman, is played by Frank Langella with a mix of glacial authority and doddery belligerence in one of the superlative ensemble’s many incisive characterizations.
Sorkin and spry editor Alan Baumgarten establish the historical timeline leading up to the protest and the principal players involved in a terrific, 7-minute pre-title sequence interweaving news footage with new material. President Johnson had increased U.S. troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000, doubling the monthly draft call to 35,000. Fear and outrage were heightened in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, and liberal Americans were incensed by the mass killing of innocent Vietnamese with napalm drops.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was considered too close to his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, in his positions on Vietnam, so multiple activist groups mobilized to stage what was intended as a peaceful demonstration in Chicago during the DNC. They included Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Youth International Party, or “Yippies,” fronted by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron-Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the scoutmaster pacifist head of the National Mobilization to End the Vietnam War, aka The Mobe.
Two peripheral figures, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), were also among those put on trial as a result of the violence that night. They have no idea how they made the cut but Weiner observes amusingly on their first day in court, “This is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”
The original eighth defendant was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national chairman of the Black Panther Party, despite his having been in Chicago for only a brief period that night: “I made a speech, had a chicken pot pie and flew back to Oakland.”
Sorkin’s script hits knowingly on raw nerves with his insights into how the Panthers were exploited in the trial, putting a Black man among the defendants to scare the jury. No sooner are two of the jurors identified by the defense as potentially on their side do their families receive threatening letters signed by the Panthers, despite this being inconsistent with the organization’s M.O. The murder during the trial of Chicago chapter Panthers chairman Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) sends shock waves, and for audiences unaware of the shameful way in which Seale was treated by Judge Hoffman, the brutal scenes leading to the declaration of a mistrial in his case will be gut-wrenching eye-openers.
At a time when Attorney General William Barr perverts justice almost on a daily basis, Sorkin gets under our skin early on by presenting Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell (John Doman), as a hardass bulldog. He’s on a personal crusade against “the school boys,” as he calls the students pushing for social change. But he’s even more driven by a vendetta against his predecessor in the job, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton, making the most of a brief appearance), a Civil Rights proponent who declined to press charges against the protesters.
When young prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is summoned to Mitchell’s office to take the case, he makes his reservations clear. The AG wants the protesters tried under the Rap Brown Law, an anti-riot act passed by Southern whites in Congress to limit the free speech of Black activists by clamping down on agitators acting outside their own communities. Schultz, who is bright and ambitious but also ethical, points out that witnesses say police, not protesters, started the violence. “And you’ll dismantle them, and you’ll win,” Mitchell snarls back.
On the other side is defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance in peerless form), assisted by Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). They spend much of the early weeks of the trial mediating among the discordant personalities of their defendants, most of all Seale, whose lawyer is in hospital and who is denied the right to represent himself by Judge Hoffman.
Watchmen breakout Abdul-Mateen II brings tremendous coiled anger to his scenes, as does Harrison as Hampton, who inflames the punctilious Judge by whispering legal counsel in Seale’s ear. Their disappearance from the movie at midpoint might have left a dip in the energy had Sorkin not been so skillful at turning up the temperature around the other characters to compensate. The friction between Kunstler and Judge Hoffman, in particular, yields thrilling moments of fireworks for Rylance and Langella.
But the focus increasingly closes in on the initially begrudging respect between Hayden (who was still alive and served as an advisor while Sorkin was researching the script) and Abbie Hoffman, two men with vastly different approaches to a common goal.
The former is serious to a fault, as is his nerdy sidekick Davis, busy keeping a daily tally of American deaths in Vietnam during the trial. Tom, who maintains a respectful attitude throughout the trial, dismisses Abbie and Jerry as attention-seeking countercultural court jesters, and Baron Cohen brings a livewire touch of the standup comic to Hoffman’s irreverent addresses to crowds of college kids. Redmayne injects stirring gravitas into Tom’s ultimate recognition that behind Abbie’s provocation lies unshakeable courage and commitment.
Much of the film’s sly humor comes from the double-act of Baron Cohen and Strong, which flirts playfully with shtick while remaining tethered to the legitimacy of their dissent. And Strong gives Jerry a touching puppy-dog innocence and vulnerability as he gets taken in by an FBI plant (Caitlin Fitzgerald) who dangles romance while gathering information.
There are strong moments from all the principals, but Redmayne gets the rousing final words. While Sorkin arguably pushes a tad hard in that scene with the soaring notes of Daniel Pemberton’s score, the forceful emotional impact is undeniable, especially coming so soon after scenes filling in the final pieces of the night of the riots. DP Phedon Papamichael’s gritty images of those volatile moments on the street and in the park, intercut with archival footage, pack a wallop.
Sorkin has made a movie that’s gripping, illuminating and trenchant, as erudite as his best work and always grounded first and foremost in story and character. It’s as much about the constitutional American right to protest as it is about justice, which makes it incredibly relevant to where we are today, and to what’s at stake in the coming election. The final note of defiance here offers a glimmer of hope for which many of us are starved right now. I’ll take it.
Production company: Marc Platt Productions, DreamWorks Pictures, in association with Shivhans Pictures
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson
Director-screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Producers: Marc Platt. Stuart Besser, Matt Jackson, Tyler Thompson
Executive producer: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Marc Butan, Anthony Katagas, James Rodenhouse, Nia Vazirani, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Lauren Lohman, Thorsten Schumacher, Shivani Rawat, Slava Vladimirov, Monica Levinson, Jared Underwood, Ryan Smith, Andrew Robinson, Nicole Shipley, Jan McAdoo, Steve Matzkin, Maurice Fadida, Sarah Schroeder-Matzkin
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Editor: Alan Baumgarten
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated R, 129 minutes