The Trial of the Chicago 7

Now streaming on Netflix, this is one of the great courtroom dramas. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, this film is powerful, thought provoking, and wildly entertaining.

For those who don’t know about the Chicago 7, here’s a brief history lesson. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a series of anti Vietnam War protests turned into full blown riots and eight people were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot. Their trial was an extremely contentious affair that brought up questions about racism, the roll of protest in society, and the impartiality of the judicial system.

This film is a dramatization of those events, and the film hews pretty close to the historical record. It rearranges a few events and excludes certain details in order to streamline the narrative, but it is a faithful adaptation to the spirit of the events. It’s also a great springboard from which to research these events on your own. It’s a fascinating chapter in American history.

The film follows, Abbie Hoffman, played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen, and Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne. Hoffman is everything we imagine when we picture a 1960’s hippie. Hayden is a much more focused political activist. These are two of the seven who are on trial. They helped organize a protest against the Democratic Convention in Chicago. When things went wrong and a full blown riot broke out they along with their friends and co organizers were arrested and put on trial.

The bulk of the film follows their trial and shows the events of the riots in flashbacks. What’s wonderful about these flashbacks is that they feel so seamless and natural in the context of the story. They are perfectly woven into the narrative, so the story is able to flow freely. We are easily swept up in that flow.

The seven are represented by William Kuntsler, played by Mark Rylance, who is able to find the perfect note in every scene. He has a dry sense of humor and a juicy delivery with his every line. It’s both a top notch performance while also being completely understated. However, Kuntsler isn’t representing everyone on trial. There is an eighth man on trial. This is Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Bobby wasn’t present for the riots. He delivered a speech and left town. He doesn’t know why he’s on trial. He is also on trial without his lawyer. He has no representation, and this leads to some of the most intense exchanges in the film as the judge doesn’t care if he has his lawyer or not.

The judge is played by Frank Langella. Could he be more perfect in this movie? No. He is wonderful here. He is a villain without appearing villainous. He is stern and powerful. He is arrogant and drunk on his power. He is hateful and cruel. But he also feels at all times like a person. He has his own life and his own point of view. The movie doesn’t forget that. It gives everyone a story and an inner life. He also might feel unbelievable or over the top, but by all accounts he’s one hundred percent accurate. In fact the historical judge went farther than depicted in the film. He has clear disdain for the defendants and issues charges of contempt of court like he’s handing out candy on Halloween. He is the perfect actor in the perfect role for this movie.

The film is full of fascinating exchanges. There’s a wonderful dialogue between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden about what the progressive movement is going to look like if Hoffman continues his hippie ways. There’s a great scene about the difference between someone protesting to frustrate their parents and someone for whom the cause is life and death. The film also has a deeply powerful ending as the characters remember the real reason they’re doing this to begin with. It’s a teary eyed uplifting ending, and who doesn’t need a little uplift now?

The dialogue crackles with Sorkin’s signature wit, but it doesn’t get lost in the tangents like some of his other work. His characters has unique voices and are truly delightful to watch. The actors rise to the challenge of his dialogue brilliantly.

Sorkin also asserts himself as a director here. He makes very smart decisions about tone and pacing. He has clearly learned a lot from his previous directing experience with Molly’s Game. His point of view is sharp. His editing rhythms are pitch perfect. He holds his shots and chooses when to cut wisely. It’s a great directing job.

I loved this movie. It’s the best new movie I’ve seen in a long time. In a year devoid of movies, this one is top of the list. In a year chock full of great movies, this would still stand out to me. It’s streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend you check it out. It will make you laugh, cry, and think about the world today. It has a lot to say about America and where we are today. Please give this one a watch. It’s worth it.

It’s my cup of tea. A+

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