Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
In August 1968, seven individuals – who would collectively become known as the Chicago 7 – make plans to protest at the Democratic National Convention. The resulting protests escalate into wild confrontations with the riot squad. Five months later, the seven appear in court, charged with intent to cross state lines and incite riots and civil unrest. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is about the court case that followed.
Look I’m going to level with you. As courtroom dramas go this movie absolutely rules. I wasn’t particularly interested in Trial of the Chicago 7 due to my lack of familiarity with the subject matter but this thing works and you know it early on. It’s the A-game Sorkin stuff. He may have had the occasional wobble in quality in recent years but this is a resounding return to form.
For those unfamiliar with his work, classic Sorkin means lots of fast paced, quippy dialogue. People exchanging heated conversations at exhaustive speed, walking down corridors as they go. The dialogue is heavily stylised and not particularly realistic. It had a Nineties tv drama vibe about it and I mean that in the best way. Characters make impassioned speeches about civil rights and what’s important.
Sacha Baron Cohen got the awards and praise for Trial of the Chicago 7 and look, I think he’s great as Abbie Hoffman (writer of Steal This Book), but honestly there was two absolutely sensational performances in this film that I don’t think get their due. I’m talking about Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman and Mark Rylance as William Kunstler.
Hoffman is a crooked judge. He presents himself as a commanding authoritative presence but he’s full of prejudice and hatred. Langella plays him in such a way that he gets under your skin and every act of insubordination from Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the seven is cause for celebration. There was a legendary number of charges of contempt of court in this trial and honestly, they were all worth it.
I’m late to the Mark Rylance appreciation party but I loved that man in Bridge of Spies and here, he is just as memorable as William Kunstler. Kunstler is the defendant for the Chicago 7. He has kind of longish hair and has a bit of laid back hippy vibe about him. But it’s clear he’s passionate about the case and stands up for what he believes is right. He’s soft spoken but when he has something to say, you listen.
It’s a fascinating story and the film interweaves courtroom scenes with events from the day of the convention. As a Sorkin drama, obviously there is creative license at play but some of the craziest scenes you seen in this movie actually happened. I know because I looked them all up. Most of the insanity that leaves you thinking ‘surely not’ involves Judge Hoffman’s clashes with Bobby Seale, the only black man on trial, who is denied fair representation with a lawyer (his chosen lawyer falls in and cannot make the trial) and their verbal stoushes escalate to an extraordinary degree.
Trial of the Chicago 7 is about courageous people who took a stand against an unjust war fifty years ago but the themes of the film still feel timely and relevant today. Abbie Hoffman, with his outspoken contempt for authority, represents one view. Tom Hayden, president of the Students for a Democratic Society, represents the other. Hoffman believes in chaos and creating a scene to draw attention to their cause. To not back down and speak plainly about injustice. Hayden takes a softer, collaborative approach. He believes he can change the system by working with it and from within it. Who is in the right? The two clash at key points in the film over how best to present their defence. Although Hoffman is the bigger personality, he eventually hands over the keys to Hayden for the defence’s closing statement. This gives us a memorable closing scene as Hayden decides emphatically how he wants to be remembered and gives his speech accordingly.
Honestly, I can’t speak highly enough of Trial of the Chicago 7. I was enthralled from the opening minute to the last.