Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a compelling courtroom drama depicting the infamous trial of seven defendants charged with inciting a riot, conspiracy and other charges relating to their counter-culture movement and anti-Vietnam war protests. In 1968 a large protest took place in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. It was led and attended by a variety of people, from young democrats to hippies. Permits for the protests were requested but not given. Undercover Chicago police gained the trust of a few of the protest leaders, in an attempt to infiltrate the protest. Eventually, violence broke out.
In the film, the trial itself is infuriating, mostly due to the apathetic Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). At first it’s almost funny, the way Judge Hoffman feels he needs to explain to the jury that he and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) are not related in the middle of the prosecution’s opening statements. But it becomes grating how over and over, the judge refuses to listen as multiple people try to explain that William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) is not Bobby Seale’s (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) lawyer. In fact, his lawyer is not present, making the very fact that he is on trial unconstitutional. Eventually, Seale is so furious over this fact that Judge Hoffman commands “Deal with him as he should be dealt with.” Seale is dragged out of the courtroom, beaten and brought back bound and gagged. It’s only after this dehumanizing moment that Seale’s case is dismissed. And when a star witness has proof claiming that it was the police who started the riot, Judge Hoffman decides that this bit of testimony is not something that the jury needs to hear.
What makes this film work so well is the spot-on editing. The opening montage perfectly ties together the eight (Seale included here) defendants as they individually prepare to travel to Chicago, recent news stories and Chicago preparing for the Democratic convention. Some of the best moments in the film flashback to the riot, mixed with black and white “footage” cut in between present dialogue (often courtroom testimony explaining what happened) and Abbie’s infamous storytelling/stand up on college campuses. It’s a lot happening at once, but it’s edited so well it works and really helps the audience understand all sides of the situation.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Sacha Baron Cohen earned his very first acting nomination for his supporting role as Abbie Hoffman. The other nominations include best cinematography, original screenplay, film editing and original song, Hear My Voice.
There’s an uncanny similarity to the events depicted in this film and recent events. The film’s writing was not molded to fit our turbulent times, but rather we are living in a new revolutionary era and perhaps that makes this film all the more compelling. Hoffman, Hayden and the rest protested against sending young men to be slaughtered in Vietnam. Today, we protest to not be slaughtered in our own neighborhoods, either by police or this week’s mass shooter. This film serves to pay tribute to the 7 who the government attempted to make an example of only for them to become heroes to a new generation and a reminder to not let our voices be silenced.
“We carried certain ideas across state lines. Not machine guns or drugs or little girls. Ideas. When we crossed from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois, we had certain ideas. And for that, we were gassed, beaten, arrested, and put on trial.”