The Trial of the Chicago Seven follows the multi-month-long trial of eight peaceful demonstration leaders in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed the film, like Molly’s game. There are few if any walk-and-talks that Sorkin is most famous for, in this film, but it has his fingerprints all over it. I think he is a wonderful writer but, as I said with Christopher Nolan’s Tenent, directing maybe isn’t his strong suit.
The ‘eighth’ member of the Chicago Seven is Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. You may recognize him from Aquaman as Manta. Bobby Seale had no legal representation during the trial and the judge, Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, refused to allow Bobby to represent himself or be tried separately. The most powerful scene is when Judge Hoffman has Mr. Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom. This is historically accurate. Seale’s portion of the trial was declared a mistrial as a result and the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven.
The Seven are anchored by Eddie Redmayne playing the straight-laced, work inside of the system, Tom Hayden. It is a fitting role for Redmayne if you have seen much of his other work. John Carroll Lynch is David Dellinger, a name that Judge Hoffman refused to pronounce correctly. He is the older, wiser pragmatic member of the Seven. The hippie ringleader of the Youth International Party (“Yippies”), Abbie Hoffman, is played by Sacha Baron Cohen. It is a magnificent performance by Cohen of someone else’s work. His delivery is biting when it needs to be, and aloof when justified by his hippie nature. This is not Baron Cohen from Borat. It just further proves how phenomenal of an actor he is.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays the US Attorney prosecuting the case Richard Schultz. Sorkin spends a lot of time playing both sides with the Schultz character. This trial was absurd due to Judge Hoffman. The attorney general in 1968 and the US justice department declined to prosecute anyone, but the new Nixon administration decided to bring the suit on a shaky legal footing. Schultz did what he was instructed to and tried to prosecute the case. He was complacent in the absurdity of Judge Hoffman. Sorkin gives Schultz some hero credit when Schultz agrees that a mistrial for Seale is the best idea. I feel it is a bit of a stretch to put Schultz in such a good-faith position so often.
This film was released on Netflix on October 16th, 2020, just a few weeks before the presidential election. It is a piece of liberal bate especially during a time with a discussion of disarming the police and a high profile Supreme Court appointment. It also shows three distinct liberal paths you can follow; Hayden, Dellinger, or Hoffman. It takes liberties, but not too many. After viewing the film it is worth reading an article or two on the actual trial. This should not be mistaken for a documentary, it is historical fiction and feels disingenuous at times.
I enjoyed the film and I learned about yet another case of police violence. I learned about more problems with our justice system. Judge Hoffman had his caseload reduced after the appeal around this trial, but the Senate never removed him from his position. Senate removal is the only way to kick someone out of a lifetime appointment like all federal judges. It was clever of Sorkin to bounce between the trial and the reenactment of events. Instead of showing you the events first then the trial, they are intertwined in a wonderful way to keep the story moving forward. While the film is good, I think it is too targeted right now. It is another piece of history that is often left out of American history textbooks. It is also fuel for those that say ‘blue lives matter’ and that there is a bias in media. I’m not sure about the ethics of releasing this film before an election, but it is a story that we all need to learn about government tyranny and revenge as the White House and Justice Department change hands.