Just in time for 2020 Presidential Election, filmmaker Aaron Sorkin is here to remind us – in the measured outrage of his historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 — that such issues as police brutality, systemic racism, civil disobedience, the anti-war movement, and the heavy hand of the judiciary have been a continual part of the American political predicament for at least the past 52 years. That is to say, we still haven’t moved on.
Writer-director Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) begins his nerve-jangling, pertinent overview of the violent street battles around Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention just as the defendants go on trial in a federal courtroom in that city, one year later. They’re charged with violating the Civil Rights Act by crossing state lines with the intent to start a riot, but quite a bit more than that is on trial. The Vietnam war is at its height. Richard Nixon’s White House fears and loathes the anti-war coalition of radicals, hippies, and Black Panthers. Any young person wearing long hair or the wrong political button is risking serious trouble.
As if to reflect those contentious times, the movie’s cast of real-life characters is packed with vigorous personalities. Wildest and woolliest of the defendants is Abbie Hoffman (played in overdrive by Sacha Baron Cohen), a civil rights protestor turned political prankster who uses absurdity and ridicule to make his point. Hoffman and his hairy colleague Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the ones who invited everyone to Chicago in the first place, through their Youth International Party.
The “Yippies” branded their week-long protest as the Festival of Life, and gathered together a band of fellow peaceniks for the big showdown, including co-defendants Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) from Students for a Democratic Society; veteran anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); academics John Froines and Lee Weiner (Danny Flaherty, Noah Robbins); and Oakland’s own Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), chairman of the Black Panther Party. For the defense: movement attorneys William Kunstler (another hypnotic performance by Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
Arrayed against them are a phalanx of cops, National Guard troops, paid provocateurs, undercover FBI agents, an ambitious government prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman), who’s anxious to teach the “shitty little fairies” a lesson. All that power is focused in the figure of Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie), portrayed by Frank Langella as a big-shot bigot ready to hang them all. Says Abbie: “This is a political trial.” That is made abundantly clear when Sorkin cuts into the testimony with flashback scenes of peaceful demonstrators getting the shit beat out of them by nightstick-swinging Chicago fuzz.
Alert audiences will immediately notice there are eight defendants in the cast list instead of seven. That’s because the argumentative Seale gets “severed” from the trial after being literally bound and gagged in the courtroom for talking out of turn. Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman aside, Abdul-Mateen gives the film’s single most meaningful performance as the unyielding Seale. He is advised in court by Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is assassinated in his bed by police while the trial is going on. Then, as now, Black people tend to be automatically seen as lawbreakers by the authorities. Especially revolutionary Black people.
Sorkin’s drama, leavened by Abbie Hoffman’s sitcom-style repartee and bloody vintage newsreel footage, can serve as a useful reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Ironies abound. Note Hayden’s kid-on-a-flagpole incident, shown in flashback, which plays directly into the hands of Nixon and the police. Also: Abbie on the stand, quoting the rebellious sayings of Jesus Christ. And Michael Keaton’s “gotcha!” cameo as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, testifying: “The riots were started by the Chicago police.” Netflix’s new one is a fine conversation starter, but don’t let it interfere with your trip to the polling place.