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Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Premise: Based on true events. Following the riots outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, seven activists are charged in federal court with conspiring to incite violence.

What Works: The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a terrific cast. Especially notable are Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, as well as Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, founders of the Youth International Party. Strong and Cohen are very funny but there is an intelligence behind the humor. The movie contains a lot of characters but each of them is distinct and the rift between the SDS and the Yippies dramatizes different ideas about protesting. Also notable is Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. Langella is both comic and monstrous as a judge of uncertain mental health who presided over the trial with great prejudice. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and he restrains some of his obnoxious tendencies. Sorkin aspires to the optimism and humanism of Frank Capra but this frequently clashes with Sorkin’s smug and snarky tone. That smugness is mostly reined in here.

What Doesn’t: Sorkin’s sentimental tendencies do get the better of him in the ending. Sorkin loves climactic speeches and The Trial of the Chicago 7 concludes with one of the defendants making a final statement underscored by rousing music. This moment is supposed to be uplifting but the scene comes across artificial and out of step with the rest of the picture. That artificiality dogs the movie. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is highly fictionalized. Creative license is a necessary part of dramatizing history but Sorkin has added and embellished elements for inexplicable reasons. Jerry Rubin is honey potted by an undercover FBI agent (Caitlin Fitzgerald). During the riots, male rightwing activists assault a female anti-war protester. During the trial, Black Panther co-founder Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) gives Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) legal advice, pacifist Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) strikes a bailiff, and the federal prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) questions the merits of the case. None of this happened. Dramatic license ought to streamline and clarify the messiness of history. The choices in The Trial of the Chicago 7 distort it. The film also simplifies these events. An innocent viewer might come away from The Trial of the Chicago 7 thinking that the anti-war demonstrators at the 1968 convention were utterly peaceful and then beaten up by violent policemen. The truth of what happened is more complicated but Sorkin simplifies everything into a binary conflict that robs the 1968 riot of any nuance. The film’s struggle with artificiality is also evident in its production design. This is a period piece but it doesn’t look of its era. The digital cinematography gives the imagery a contemporary gloss and the outfits and sets appear artificial. The actors look like people dressed up for a 1960s costume party instead of characters in their authentic clothes.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is well intentioned and has a few good performances but the movie makes a lot of dubious storytelling choices and it flattens and simplifies complex historical events.

Episode: #827 (November 15, 2020)