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Trial of the Chicago 7, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed (At Least Until October)"
4 stars

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a docudrama based on the conspiracy trial of a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors whose conspiracy trial related to charge that they incited riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago became the focus of worldwide attention, is a project that has come close to being made several times over the last decade or so without ever quite making it before the cameras. Written by Aaron Sorkin, for whom the combination of courtroom drama and politics must have been artistic catnip, the film was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg with Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie agitator Abbie Hoffman, Will Smith as Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale and the late Heath Ledger as SDS co-founder Tom Hayden. A Writers Guild strike shut that iteration down and when Spielberg moved on to other things, other filmmakers like Paul Greenglass and Ben Stiller were mentioned as possibilities to film Sorkin’s script but these versions failed to pan out as well. After all this time, the film has finally been made, with Sorkin himself tapped to direct his screenplay, and it is a supreme irony that after so many years in which it might have been looked upon simply as a period piece, it arrives in theaters (albeit briefly, though it will be on Netflix, who bought the film from Paramount once Covid-19 tanked the theatrical release schedule, beginning October 16) with themes and ideas that seem as if it was specifically cultivated to come out at this precise moment in time, one at least as tumultuous as the period that it documents.

In looking over the previous paragraph, I see that I have dropped the names of a number of people and organizations without any detailed explanation of who they are. Now for older viewers and students of American history, they need no explanation but for a large part of the potential audience, thee is an excellent chance that they mean absolutely nothing. Likewise, while those people may be aware that the Chicago riots happened, they may not quite understand how the people put on trial were charged in the first place or how bizarre the eventual trial got. The trick for Sorkin is to figure out a way to make a film that is both as true to the historical record as can be and dramatically satisfying for those who are coming in blind as well as those well-versed in what happened. For the most part, he has managed to accomplish that and what might have come across like a ponderous bit of end-of-year awards fare in other hands has a real vitality to it that helps it to come alive.

After a prologue showing the people who would soon find themselves on trial as they prepare to go to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in full view of the television cameras capturing the nearby convention, the story proper opens with Chicago prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being summoned by the newly installed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to be offered the job of leading the prosecution of the eight defendants standing trial and charged with conspiracy. The group includes Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), who are leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society group and advocate working for change through political means. On the opposite end of the radical spectrum, the so-called Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), both whom regard the entire thing as a farce and are determined to respond in kind. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a literal Boy Scout and conscientious objector and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) are as flummoxed as everyone else as to why they have been charged with anything. Most controversially, there is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), who was only in the area for a couple of hours and suspects that he has included so that there would be an angry-looking black man to scare the jury into convictions.

Speaking frankly, Schultz informs Mitchell that a conspiracy case against the group, specifically that they crossed state lines with the express purpose of inciting the police, would be hard to pull off—several of them had not even met each other before arriving in Chicago, there was a fundamental disagreement between Hayden and Hoffman regarding their approaches to protesting the war and the previous AG, Ramsey Clarke, had declined to prosecute on the basis that there wasn’t enough proof to support the charges. Nevertheless, Schultz is compelled to prosecute the case and it isn’t long before the entire thing turns into a sideshow. Much of this is due to the peculiar antics of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who makes his prejudices against the defendants so well known right from the start that it at times seems baffling that the case could have continued. He is especially appalling in his treatment of Seale, who is sitting without representation because his lawyer is sick and whose protests against his treatment and being denied legal counsel end up with him being literally shackled and gagged on Hoffman’s order. The others aren’t faring much better either and lead defense counsel William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) finds his objections overruled and evidence rejected by Hoffman, who spends his time handing out contempt citations for the slightest provocation and then some. As the trial goes on, we get a fuller sense of what went on that night in Grant Park, the extraordinary lengths that the Chicago police underwent to infiltrate the protestors and the actions of the individual defendants that brought them to this moment of infamy.

As a lifelong resident of the Chicago area, the story of this trial has long been ingrained with me—my parents used to talk about regularly going to the downtown eatery Miller’s Pub and often seeing Kunstler and his legal team sitting there discussing legal strategy—and so I was more than a little curious to see how it would play out as a relatively expensive movie with a cast filled with well-known face portraying people who were just as famous back then. For the most part, Sorkin plays to his artistic strengths—dialogue-heavy scenes that manage to immerse viewers immediately into a particular culture and mindset without spending a lot of time holding their hands or explaining thing to them—and only allows himself a couple of moments of blatant theme-underlying speechifying and pure mawkishness. Although this film is clearly a step up from his previous directorial effort, “Molly’s Game,” his skills behind the camera continue to lag behind his skills behind the keyboard—he manages the considerable feat of making courtroom conversations and legal byplay into scenes that are gripping and exciting but falters a bit when forced to put together a sequence that involves more than just a few guys in a room talking. Nevertheless, he does a pretty good job of keeping the tension moving along (even if you known how it all turns out) and captures the outrageousness of the trial without tripping over into pure cartoonishness.

As a director, Sorkin proves to be more effective in his work with the actors and he does a very good job of juggling his enormous cast of characters and giving everyone their moment to shine. The one who is certain to get the most attention, and deservedly so, is Sacha Baron Cohen, who does an excellent job at channelling Abbie Hoffman’s often-outrageous public persona as well as a less flamboyant side that shows that, despite the evidence to the contrary, he was capable of serious thought as well, best displayed in the film’s key scene in which Hoffman, improbably, is actually called upon to testify on behalf of the group. Redmayne, an actor who has generally done precious little for me, is very good as Hayden, especially in the scenes in which his innate desire to play within the system and show respect to a system that does not return the favor backfires on him in a public way. Abdul-Mateen is mesmerizing enough as Bobby Seale to make you wish that someone would put him in a full-on Seale biopic as soon as possible, preferably making room for Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is just as good as fellow Panther and eventual martyr Fred Hampton. On the ostensible side of law and order, Gordon-Levitt does a good job at presenting Schultz’s conflict at putting forth a case that he is not entirely convinced is a just cause and Langella is appropriately loathsome as Judge Hoffman, whose imperious nature and condescending attitude is an affront to all the qualities that his job is supposed to represent. Best of all, there is a late-inning cameo from a certain actor—Im not sure if his presence is supposed to be a surprise or not, so I will be coy—who turns up as Ramsey Clark for a couple of scenes in which he pops up to do the right thing, knowing full well just how futile of a gesture it really is.

My only real problem with “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is that it tells a story that kind of calls out for a slightly bolder and more adventurous treatment than it has been afforded here—it might have been interesting to see what Paul Greengrass, whose films include such true stories as “Bloody Sunday,” “United 93” and “22 July,” might have made of it. However, considering what an otherwise solid presentation it is, the lack of wild stylistic excitement is not that big of a problem. Besides, Sorkin is more interested in the human drama and legal history than in visual pyrotechnics and that, along with the strong performances and the unexpected resonance to current events that can be felt in practically every scene, is what ultimately makes it work. Yes, it may look on the surface like a prototypical bit of Oscar bait and it most likely will become a factor in the upcoming awards race, primarily for Sorkin’s script, Cohen’s performance and the driving and ominous score by Daniel Pemberton. The good news is that, despite all of that, it is still a movie worth watching.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33492&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/24/20 21:10:58
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