Let it not be said that Hollywood won’t find a way to take dark moments in world events and turn them as they see fit. Right or wrong, film writers and producers typically have a long leash when it comes to what they can or cannot take liberties with, in their storytelling. Facts can be left out or they can be pushed to the forefront. The same can be said for rumors or urban legends. Basically, the creative side that takes in the story will be how the movie will be presented. Nothing wrong with it, but it is partly why people can’t look at dramatized cinema as “factual retellings.”
Political dramatizations are nothing new to director Aaron Sorkin. Arguably, Sorkin’s best work was done for the television series, The West Wing, a long-running drama about life in the White House. You could also add A Few Good Men to the list, but I feel that the sheer amount of time invested in The West Wing proves Aaron’s incredible ability for telling believable stories. Lasting for seven seasons, The West Wing has been ranked among the best television series ever produced. Sorkin wanted to write a movie about the trial of seven men during the 1968 anti-Vietnam movement, while having Steven Spielberg direct. But after some events, Sorkin took it upon himself to write and direct the film, now titled The Trial Of The Chicago 7 for Netflix.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is a dramatized legal film based on the famous American trial. A short little history lesson here: in 1968, several groups of people who opposed the Vietnam War travelled to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, where a riot broke out. In total, eight people (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale) were arrested for inciting the riot and brought to trial. The film picks up five months after the riot, with all eight men preparing for the trial. Seven of the members are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), with only Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) being represented by Charles Garry. Due to illness, Charles is unable to attend the trial. Rather than allowing time for Seale’s attorney to heal, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) insists that Kunstler represents all eight individuals, something Kunstler and Seale both reject, to no avail.
As the trial commences, it becomes even more clear that the eight men will not receive a fair trial. Judge Hoffman is openly hostile to the defendants, going as far as issuing numerous contempt-of-court charges. During one of these moments, Judge Hoffman has Seale beaten, bound and gagged, due to his insistence that he is not getting a fair trial. It is this moment that forces the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to ask for a mistrial in Bobby’s case. Reluctantly, Judge Hoffman agrees and declares the mistrial only in the case of Bobby Seale.
Of the seven men remaining, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his partner, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), are the most boisterous of their disdain for the court. On the day of the riot, Abbie and Jerry were leading protests when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) was arrested for letting the air out of the tires of some police cars. Abbie led the protesters to the police station, but backed off when they encountered a large police presence. As the group tried to return to the park where the protest began, they found that the police had taken control and refused to allow them to return. This sparked a clash between the civilians and the much better armed police. That evening, Hayden made a passionate speech, ending with, “If our blood is going to flow, then let it flow all over the city.” It was this statement, taken out of context, that led to the arrest for “incitement of a riot” for the men.
While mostly historically accurate, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 does have its moments of Hollywood glamorization. The film is a political drama, mirroring lots of the events that took place in the USA during 2020. I am not a fan of films that have a political slant to them, and The Trial Of The Chicago 7 does lean to one side of the political spectrum. But Sorkin weaved in his message without being too biased. I do prefer when films do not take liberties in historical retellings, but the spin in The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is only slightly noticeable.
It is very hard to find a single actor to focus on in this film. Sorkin did a masterful job in ensuring that you somewhat remember each of the eight men initially on trial, as well as the attorney and judge. The ensemble cast is just that perfectly woven together. If I had to pick out one member of the cast that truly stuck out, it would have to be Sacha Baron Cohen. I am used to his silly and crazy antics in the Borat films, so I was kinda on the fence about him in this serious of a role. And while he did provide comic relief, he does it in a way that fits. His jokes were not out of place, and delivered in a way that feels genuine. It is for that portrayal that Cohen has been nominated for many Best Supporting Actor awards, and recently won that honor from the Music City Film Critics’ Association.
Even though The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is not my usual type of film, I give it four out of five stars. The only negative I can say about it is the slanted storytelling and glamorization by Hollywood. It is slight, but still very much there. Aaron Sorkin made a great film that I feel will be shown in schools for years to come when the subject of 1960s America comes up.