The Trial of the Chicago 7

MA15+, 129 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a wildly ambitious film, compact and fast-paced over two hours. If wordy and a touch self-important, it is brilliantly written and performed, and the result is riveting.

It could easily have been a television miniseries. The backstory, for a start, is immense.

protesters singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson

It’s about events that took place in 1968, at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, as the anti-war movement gathered momentum. A group of men who were leaders of various groups of protesters were singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson.

Early in the year, the draft call had doubled and the country was reeling from the daily death count. The 1968 Democratic Convention in August was a magnet for anti-Vietnam protesters of all stripes.

Chicago battened down, refusing permission for protest in its precincts, except for a space in one of the city parks. The police were out in force, 12,000 of them, the National Guard and others too.

History remembers the ‘seven’, but there were originally eight men on trial: Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The seven were represented by William Kunstler, played by the wonderful British actor, Mark Rylance.

Seale (Yaya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panthers, who was  unrepresented, was subjected to particular humiliation in court, gagged and handcuffed at the judge’s orders. Then the case against him was made separate, and charges against him, and Froines and Weiner were later dropped.

As a result of the riots that took place, these leaders of protesters who had bussed into Chicago were charged with ‘conspiracy to cross State lines in order to incite violence’. The trial before Justice Hoffman (Frank Langella) lasted six months, and his courtroom became a stage for the contest of ideas between Left and Right.

The prosecution was in trouble from the start. The charges that were brought against the group of men were not clearly indictable.

Then a key question emerged. Who had started the riots in the first place? The focus turned to the police.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin (the writer behind The West Wing and The Social Network) has managed somehow to wrangle the unwieldy details and present a coherent, tight narrative flipping between flashbacks to the protests and the courtroom setting presided over by Hoffman.

His screenplay was ready to shoot in 2007, with Steven Spielberg to direct, but production stalled. It was revived in 2018, at the halfway point of Trump’s presidency. The producers sensed the time was right and greenlighted the project.

And Sorkin, having shown what he could do as a director on Molly’s Game, would direct.

Sacha Baron Cohen was the only actor initially cast who was still attached to the project from 2007. Good thing too. His character Abbie Hoffman, a founding member of the Yippies and closely associated with Flower Power movement, is one of the most interesting.

It is good to see that the creator of the inimitable Borat and Ali G demonstrate that his range extends to characters who might melt into everyday society.

Tom Hayden, Eddie Redmayne in the role, a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, was a different breed of social activist altogether. He went on to serve in electoral politics, but is perhaps best known for once being married to Jane Fonda.

It is a tad disappointing that some of the more of the more theatrical aspects of the actual trial are left out. Those performances that contributed to the occasion dubbed the ‘Academy Awards’ for protest movements.

it’s a reminder that the US has been there before

‘Cultural witnesses’ who attended the trial, like Arlo Guthrie and Norman Mailer, don’t get a showing, though beat poet Allen Ginsberg does make a brief appearance. Perhaps Sorkin thought there were distractions enough from his serious intent.

For lots of reasons, many of them bad but some good, 1968 in the US is a year to remember. The Smithsonian calls it ‘the year that shattered America’.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the beginning of Richard Nixon’s presidency were low points. But the civil rights movement swelled, and the tide turned against continuing the war in Vietnam.

This terrific film is a  reminder, a half century on, that however divided and partisan the US looks now, it has been there before.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 October 2020. Broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Feature image: For Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) democracy had its place in the classroom. Courtesy Netflix