The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020) is a film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, portraying the true story of 7 people on trial surrounding clashes with law enforcement during anti-Vietnam War protests held at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, USA. Originally intended for cinema release only, the film was shown in select theatres. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in October the film was sold to Netflix, and is available to watch online now.
[Disclaimer: This review includes some spoilers!]
Aaron Sorkin, writer and director of The Trial of the Chicago 7, originally wrote the screenplay in 2007. Despite being set in 1968 America, so many aspects of the film seamlessly mirror the American political and social struggles of 2020. As snap shots of glistening police badges, close-ups of bludgeons and smirking grins on officers’ faces swept the screen, I couldn’t fathom how a twelve-year-old script could speak so painfully to the present. So I did some digging.
In an interview with Variety, Sorkin revealed how the film became tailor-made for its time of release: “Spielberg saw Molly’s Game and was sufficiently pleased to suggest I direct ‘Chicago 7’ and then [Donald] Trump was elected. At his rallies Trump started being nostalgic about the good old days beating up protestors and the movie became relevant again. At that time, I had no idea how relevant it would become with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.” The Black Lives Matter protests that dominated headlines and social media for months kicked off once the film was in post-production. Still, Sorkin knew he needed to make real life additions to the original footage. They had an opportunity to highlight the injustice of killings like Fred Hampton to an audience currently hyper aware of the ingrained racism within the policing system. Sorkin added quick cuts to black and white images from the crime scene of Hampton’s killing, showing them in all their gory truth.
I too was completely caught up in the anger that radiated from the main characters. I wanted them to insult the abominable judge and damn the consequences. I drew in a hissed breath whenever a cop came on screen. I couldn’t help but tense up as our beloved Chicago 7 were pushed and pushed towards their breaking point.
From the opening sequence, we’re thrust into the electrifying chaos of each character’s passion. Clever dialogue jumped from Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) to Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) to David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) to Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and so on. Five minutes in and I was brimming with excitement. Whatever happened next, it would make history. I felt a part of it. That’s the wonder of good filmmaking – you walk with them, talk with them, share their passion that overflows every which way out of the screen.
The leaders’ powerfully defiant attitudes easily sustained over two hours of film time. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden gave us a stellar performance, with his iconic speech sending shivers down my spine. The famous line: “if blood is going to spill, let it spill all over the city,” landed as Hayden reached his breaking point and unleashed a fury that incited many in the park to riot. His performance was brilliantly juxtaposed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman. His fantastic comedy and quick intelligence offset Redmayne’s well-mannered delivery such that both characters had peaks and troughs throughout the film, captivating the viewer.
The film doesn’t hide its clear bias in favour of the protesters. To be a success in 2020, it had to be pro-protestor. The alterative, a pro-Government telling of the 1968 riots, would have been a deep slog through nonsense legislation and excuses. No one wants to hear it. No more excuses. Passion ultimately drives us all. This film centralises its protagonists’ passion and stacks it against the establishment. This gives us a clear villain with a million faces and a ragtag team of heroic martyrs. I cannot recommend this film enough. You should watch it, and more importantly, you should watch it right now. It teaches us that as we fail to learn from the past, we witness it play out everyday in our present.
Actor wise, there are some Big names in this film, and this fact couldn’t help but make me pay even more close attention to the casting choices. Did they choose the actors just for the names on the poster, or because they were genuinely best suited for the role? In the end, I felt it was a bit of both. (disclaimer: I loved the film either way).
It’s a slight understatement to say I’m not exactly Eddie Redmayne’s biggest fan, but he was perfect as the very principled and serious student activist Tom Hayden (Although I do confess that I spent most of his screen time split between A: admiring Hayden’s bravery and morality and B: trying to figure out what exactly is so strange about Redmayne’s mouth). Similarly, at the start of the film, I wasn’t convinced by Sacha Baron Cohen as ‘yippie’ leader Abbie Hoffman. Maybe it was the slightly dodgy American accent or the fact that to me, he just didn’t look convincing as a hippy – more like a dad who’s really gone for it at a 70s fancy dress party. But having done a bit of background on the real story of the trial, it seems Baron Cohen was perhaps a better match for the role than I first thought. Hoffman was in fact 30 years old when the trial took place, not the youthful hippy I had imagined SB-C was trying to portray, and the real life Abbie was certainly the seasoned performer and extremely intelligent man whom we see Sacha do a good job of portraying throughout the film.
In fact, this was certainly a movie made even more interesting by researching the real stories it set out to tell. ‘Based on a true story’ is a well trodden Hollywood path, and I was expecting the certain level of artistic licence and ‘cheese’ifying that’s often standard as a result. And it’s true, ‘The Trial…’ doesn’t stick word for word to the (extensive) case notes on which it was based. But it does a pretty commendable job. Even most of the pranks that Yippies Hoffman and Rubin pulled off in court (including dressing in judge’s robes) really happened, which made me love the film even more.
The few things Sorkin did alter baffle me slightly however, including the portrayal of prosecution lawyer Richard Schultz, played by everyone’s favourite soft-boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Perhaps it really was just a case of poor Joseph being physically unable to portray a character as anything other than slightly problematic yet ultimately still loveable, but it seemed an odd choice to take such a sympathetic view of Schultz. (“Ok, he is trying to send them all to jail for 10 years, but look at his sad little face, he definitely doesn’t mean it! And look, he’s taken his hat off to pay his respects to the fallen soldiers! He’s such a sweetie, this is just like 500 Days Of Summer”). I jest, but when in reality it seems Schultz was about as far from a ‘sweetie’ as you could get (he was described by a journalist at the time of the trial as the government’s ‘pit bull’), Gordon-Levitt does seem a strange casting choice. My suspicion is that someone high up decided it was just slightly too unmarketable to the wider American audience to depict law and order in a whole heartedly condemning light, which is a tad disappointing, but probably not surprising.
Anther move which felt odd to me was the introduction of a (fictional) female agent sent by the police to simultaneously infiltrate the group and break Rubin’s heart, armed only with a terrible pun (let’s just say that one egg related joke is truly ‘an oeuf’ and leave it at that). I’m not too sure what this added to the storyline… are Hollywood directors really just contractually obliged to include a love interest, no matter how brief or irrelevant? Agent O’Connor’s addition seems even stranger still considering anecdotal reports regarding Rubin’s romantic partners suggest that they were in fact, mostly male. Not that it’s really any of our business, but the ‘straight-washing’ of history is certainly a well documented issue, and this diversion from truth leaves a disappointing footnote in my otherwise glowing review of the adaptation.
Overall though, I think Sorkin has done an absolutely stunning job. After all, the story on its own is so compelling, he’s really done the best thing he could have done with the plot line… and left it well alone. A must watch.
The bustling opening montage of The Trial of the Chicago 7 hurtles us through a cacophony of context: American troops being drafted for the Vietnam war, unrest around Nixon’s presidential election, the Yippies, the Black Panthers, the SDS, police violence and brutality, and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Visions of conflict, discontent, violence and civil unrest flash up on screen – some barely long enough to register what I’m seeing before the image flees – and it soon becomes clear that Sorkin’s legal drama will not relax (read: cop out) in to focusing on just one, easily digested portion of the infamous trial it represents. Fair play, Sorkin.
With a star-studded cast like this one (Eddie Redmayne, Sascha Baron-Cohen, Mark Rylance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – to name just a few) I was surprised to see that this film has managed to root itself in an ensemble ethos. In terms of writing: when spoilt with such interesting, nuanced and publicly-recognised characters, with rich histories to delve in to, you’d imagine that it’s difficult to strike the balance between the subject matter and the personalities (especially with a cast like this). However, the performances are grounded and authentic, leaving ample room for the cast and direction to tease apart the interweaving strands of subject matter, and why this trial is still relevant today.
So, what is it about this 1969 trial that is pertinent to your life in 2020? Really, what The Trail of the Chicago 7 shows us is that we’ve been naïve. We are naïve to think that the 60s, this trial and all its context, are a world away – that surely so much has changed. At moments in the film, it feels like the action could have been taking place today; apart from some fabulous but not-so-on-trend haircuts – though 60’s/70’s fashion is creeping up again, so I could be eating my words on that in a few weeks! This is particularly true when the film tackles issues around racism in America’s judicial system; the film confronts the murder of Fred Hampton (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in his bed, which is a stark, damning parallel with the murder of Breonna Taylor earlier this year. We see conflict about the ‘right’ way to protest the Vietnam war and racial inequality, a debate echoed by 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests in which the police used cruel and brutal force against protesters (tear gas, rubber bullets), and the public told protesters that they deserved it because they were too loud, or too angry.
The film ends with Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) reading the names of each troop killed in Vietnam to be immortalised on the court record, after the judge has asked Hayden to give a ‘respectful, remorseful and otherwise brief’ statement in order for the judge (and the US Government) to look upon him and the others favourably. Instead, he reads a (certainly not brief) statement detailing the names of each troop killed in Vietnam to be immortalised on the court record: a 1960’s counterpart to one of BLM’s prominent slogans – ‘SAY THEIR NAMES’. Though this ending is partially fabricated – in the original case it is David Dellinger who attempted to read the names of every person killed in the war (both American and Vietnamese) much earlier in the trial – Sorkin’s choice leaves us feeling formidable, energised, and raring to use our own voices against inequality. Though after delving in to reports on the trial itself – which I guarantee you’ll feel a burning desire to do after watching this film – I found out that each of the 7 gave their own closing statements, which are all incredible reads. I would have loved to have seen these represented in the film – especially Jerry Rubin’s speech, which confronted injustice against black people in the American judicial system (go read it).
If you’re finding yourself exhausted by opposition, losing confidence in the power that you hold as a citizen – this is a must-watch. This film reignites a crucial fire, representing faith in the power of people, and there’s no better time than now to keep that fire burning.