By Lynn Venhaus
A civics lesson for the ages, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s riveting account of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a potent examination of injustice during a politically charged time of civil disobedience. Through the lens of a riveting courtroom drama, the film is an acting showcase and one of the best films of the year.
And because the maestro is Sorkin, the film is also a discourse on cultural revolution and political theater, all while working in the confines of a true story. Because it is not a documentary, some of the timeline jumps around and incidents are embellished, but trial transcripts are used, along with archival footage, to create an authentic portrait.
In August 1968, several activist groups opposed to the Vietnam War converged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by radical revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), led by older conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leader of the Black Panthers, is also present but not connected with the others. They, along with eventually acquitted Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), are the Chicago 8. Seal’s case would later be declared a mistrial, thus leaving seven.
Demonstrators violently clashed with police in and around Grant Park, which was captured on live television and the reason for a courtroom circus the next year after Nixon was elected President. Using a new law, the eight are charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.
The infamous 1969 trial, orchestrated by Nixon’s Department of Justice, is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). The legal eagles are civil rights attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Ben Weinglass (Leonard Shenkman) for the defense and Justice Department prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie).
The casting is impeccable. Sorkin’s breakthrough was the play “A Few Good Men” in 1989, later a movie. Known for “The West Wing,” he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.” With his fast-paced dialogue and customary insightful monologues, Sorkin’s original screenplay now vaults to leading awards contender. It is a marvel of nuance and first amendment passion, focusing on change – how people make it happen.
Sorkin immerses us in the atmosphere of the ’60s volatile times, as dissent grew throughout the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, followed by the killing of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy two months later. More anti-war activists took to the streets when the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated. But “the Establishment” attacked free speech and peaceful protests, fearing anarchy and widespread unrest.
His dialogue, nimbly spoken by this extraordinary ensemble, astutely advances character development and shows the duality of law – when it works in a courtroom, and when it doesn’t. With such a large cast, Sorkin has managed to bring out the distinct personalities of the iconoclast rebels.
Sorkin has shrewdly opted to concentrate only on the present with the major defendants, providing little backstory to their rise as movement leaders. While everyone snugly fits their roles, stand-outs are Eddie Redmayne as fervent Tom Hayden, convinced working inside the system is the right conduit for progress, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the mouthy disrupter Abbie Hoffman, who mastered media for his own purposes. Their different approaches lead to confrontations but ultimately, they are on the same page.
As the clearly biased tyrannical judge, Frank Langella is chilling as a man who thinks he does not discriminate but his cruelty to Seale suggests otherwise. Mark Rylance, Oscar winner for the 2015 “The Bridge of Spies” and three-time Tony Award winner, will likely score nominations for his remarkable portrayal of impassioned lawyer William Kunstler.
Abdul-Mateen II, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “Watchman,” is powerful in his silence as Seale and bears the brunt of the injustice during the trial. Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966, was just in Chicago to give a speech and did not know the other guys.
Alex Sharp excels as the dedicated Rennie Davis, who is less flashy than the other counterculture activists but whose involvement is significant nonetheless. Sharp won a Tony Award for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2105.
Sorkin had only directed once before, 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” an uneven but interesting account of a true story. For this legal drama, he keeps the courtroom scenes taut and the street scenes intense and chaotic.
Sorkin gets terrific assistance from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot last year’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” and editor Alan Baumgarten, known for other Sorkin films and “American Hustle.” Composer Daniel Pemberton scores the action with the right tempo without using popular protest music from the times.
As an important acknowledgement of this case in America’s evolution, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” conveys precious civil liberties. And demonstrates what makes compelling stories – Americans speaking out, what inspires revolution and why civil discourse matters.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a courtroom drama based on real events, directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. It starts Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie and Ben Schenkman. Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug us, The runtime is 2 hr. 10 min. Lynn’s Grade: A
Available in select theatres Oct. 9 and on Netflix Oct. 16.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.