The Trial of the Chicago 7 may be too quixotic for some, but it’s a film that is made for the masses. It applies the classic Hollywood treatment to its worthy subject matter. Sorkin’s film is scintillating, provocative, devastatingly effective, chillingly relevant, and just so damn good.
The summer of ’68 in the United States was a powder keg. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated on April 14th of the same year. Robert Kennedy was killed just over two months prior on June 5th. Both advocated for the call of reform for minorities and youth in politics and government. All of this was happening while the most heated topic was America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The government sent thousands of black men to fight for a country that had not (and still hasn’t) treated them equally (14.1% of the men who died in Vietnam were African-American). This all comes to a head at the 1968 democratic convention and the trial that ensued after. This legal courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is made accessible by writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s signature rat-a-tat-tat dialogue at a lightning-fast pace.
The film follows eight (that’s not a typo) men who are standing trial for being anti-Vietnam War protesters. The group includes Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) is an activist with a tad too much respect for the establishment. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), are anarchists and the leading proponents of the “flower power” movement. David Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch) is a family man who is your basic consciousness observer of the activist group. Rennie Davis, a key member of the American anti-Vietnam War protest movement, was beaten during the riot by the police but charged anyway. Finally, John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) are American activists who are being served up as sacrificial pawns by the government. These men are being represented by the radical civil rights lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), and prosecuted by an ambitious and meticulous young assistant attorney, Richard Schultz (Joseph-Gordon Levitt). They faced charges of crossing state lines with the intention of inciting violence.
You can either love a film like The Trial of the Chicago 7 or despise its overall idealism as being even quixotic—something that is in short supply these days. Really, what is romantic about having to stitch up gashes on one’s forehead created by a half-dozen rubber bullets being shot by an armed militia paid to protect the public? You can even say Sorkin’s retelling may be too polished and pristine for some; especially for those who want their rebellion films to be down and dirty.
While many can also find Sorkin’s trademark dialogue creates characters that sound alike, it makes any subject matter compulsively watchable. The reason the film works so well is that it has an idealism that many have craved in their entertainment since The West Wing left us over a decade ago. It’s uplifting and surprisingly hopeful for a film with themes that are, unfortunately, modern yet old as time. If anything, the film shows us the lie of how far we have come in 60-plus years have really just been, if anything, cosmetic.
If you find yourself on the idealistic end of the spectrum, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a film that is made for the masses. It applies the classic Hollywood treatment to its worthy subject matter. Sorkin’s film is scintillating, provocative, engrossing, powerful, devastatingly effective, chillingly relevant, and just so damn good.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.