‘Chicago 7’ is perfect movie for troubled times

It comes along in the wake of the massive Black Lives Matter protests in America at a time when the US is once again divided over how to characterize and react to these protests.

SACHA BARON Cohen (center right) as Abbie Hoffman in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7.’ (photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX VIA JTA)
SACHA BARON Cohen (center right) as Abbie Hoffman in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7.’
Sometimes the stars align for a particular movie so it is released at exactly the right moment, and that is the case for Aaron Sorkin’s new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which starts streaming on Netflix on October 16.
It comes along in the wake of the massive Black Lives Matter protests in America at a time when the US is once again divided over how to characterize and react to these protests. Americans have not grappled with such widespread and controversial demonstrations since the era of the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, with which the trial in the movie is concerned.
Sorkin is best known to television viewers as the creator of The West Wing, a witty and literate series about, to paraphrase a term used often by the characters, smart people who disagree with each other. But he also wrote a movie that features one of the most famous courtroom scenes of all time, A Few Good Men.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 combines the smart-guy banter for which he is famous with one of the most gripping trials in US history, and the result is an entertaining and thought-provoking movie. It’s also heartfelt, as Sorkin’s screenplay explores the essence of what drives each character, and lets the viewers decide with whom they agree and identify.
It’s also almost completely free of the verbal tics for which Sorkin is famous, which have come to be known as “Sorkinisms.” These catchphrases and jokes can be fun, but they distract from the action. In fact, much of the dialogue is straight from trial transcripts, but Sorkin carefully curated the testimony in the long court battle. He has also made sure the film will be accessible to younger viewers who don’t know the history. This is the second film he has directed and it’s far better than his first, Molly’s Game, which had its moments but which was bland.
The movie opens with president Lyndon B. Johnson announcing an escalation in the numbers of US troops sent to Vietnam, clips showing the draft lottery and footage of napalm being dropped on Vietnamese villages, so it’s clear what the protesters were fighting against.
The film then introduces the Chicago 7 defendants – Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, a brilliant piece of casting), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), as well as Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther leader who spoke at the Chicago demonstration but who did not want to be grouped with the other defendants and was denied his right to counsel.
Their lawyers are William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). The government prosecutors are led by Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whom, to Sorkin’s credit, he presents as an ambitious lawyer who did not actually think the defendants were guilty of a criminal conspiracy and who was put in a difficult position by John Mitchell (John Dorman). To top it all off, the presiding, eccentric and deeply hostile judge, Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) is played masterfully by Frank Langella.
The film explores the tensions among the defendants, pitting Hayden’s pragmatic approach against Abbie Hoffman’s love of publicity and political theater. The courtroom scenes are riveting in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up way. At one point, for example, Judge Hoffman ordered Seale, the only black defendant, to be gagged in the courtroom, which aroused condemnation and public sympathy.
There were some particularly Jewish moments in the trial that the film leaves out, which is too bad, since they included an exchange in which Abbie shouted the Yiddish phrase, “Shanda fur de goyim!” (“a shame before the nations”) at the judge. The New York Times reported in 1970 in its daily account of the trial that, “Later, Mr.
Hoffman gleefully translated the phrase as ‘Front man for the WASP power élite.’” Anyone interested in this aspect of the trial should read Abbie Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, in which he dissects the animosity between himself and the judge and makes some interesting points about the American-Jewish experience.
Some will feel that the movie oversimplifies the ideological conflicts among the American Left too much, but it wouldn’t be possible to cover every aspect of these rifts and alliances in a two-hour film. Even had this story been dramatized as a miniseries, I’m not sure that every disagreement in tactics and philosophy between Students for a Democratic Society (Hayden and Davis’s faction), and the Yippies (Hoffman and Rubin’s group) would really matter to many viewers now.
Sorkin successfully examines the essence of the schism between Hayden and Hoffman and finds drama in how the two men influenced each other, which goes deeper than the “smart people who disagree with each other” debates on West Wing. And he certainly finds the black humor in the whole court proceeding, which was nonetheless a serious trial in which the defendants faced 10 years behind bars.
The casting is brilliant and features an extremely distinguished cast. Baron Cohen is one of the standouts and his jokey, theatrical delivery is perfect for Hoffman. Strong is also appealing as he portrays Rubin as a lovable schnook, and it’s funny to think that Rubin went on to a career as a stockbroker and was famous for holding networking events when this was a new idea at Studio 54.
Strong recently won an Emmy for his performance on Succession, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who gives a commanding performance as the black panther who doesn’t believe he belongs in the same category as the rest of the defendants, also won an Emmy for Watchmen this year. Redmayne won a Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything and Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies a few years back. Langella embraces the judge’s irritability and, at times, his irrationality, but rarely raises his voice.
There will be those who will criticize the lack of strong female characters, but the truth is that the Chicago 7 and their lawyers were men. Alice Kremelberg plays Bernardine Dohrn, one of the key players in the Weathermen radical activist group, who here is shown answering phones for Kunstler, and she gets a few good lines.
The biggest compliment I can pay Sorkin and his cast is to say that I have already watched this film twice and enjoyed it both times.