Movie Review: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

If you follow the news you will hear a lot of people—some perhaps well meaning and some most definitely not—suggest that the protests that have taken place in this country this summer are wrong. They will tell you that the protests are “not being done the right way” and then they will say that a portion of these protests have devolved into violence. They will say this as though there is a “right way” to object to unarmed individuals being shot multiple times, or beaten, or choked, by the police on an all-too regular basis in the United States. They will say it despite the fact that peaceful protests are all too often ignored. They will say it not bothering too mention that one of the moments these same individuals view as amongst the greatest in our history, the Boston Tea Party, was the sort of violent protest they are now decrying.

Do not be confused, if a protest is nonviolent these same people will still complain. They will tell you that not standing during the National Anthem is not the right way to protest. They will tell you that expressing your displeasure by putting a phrase on a shirt is wrong. They will tell you that peacefully assembling outside the White House is not the right way to protest. They will come up with reason after reason after reason that your protest is wrong or invalid or has been undercut. You don’t look the right way. You don’t sound the right way. You don’t say things in the way that they want you to say them. There are a million reasons why you’re wrong.

The truth, however, is this and you can see it when you look at “Antebellum,” “Becoming,” and so many other movies that have played out on our screens this year – if you don’t stand up, if you aren’t loud, and if you don’t upset people in the process, no one is going to listen. You have to ensure that the whole world is watching.

To suggest that a protest is not being “done the right way” is to gloss over all the protests that are done the right way, instantly forgotten, and generate no change. On top of that, many of these protests that would be “done the right way” are simply not even allowed to occur because the truth is that the actual “right way” as seen by those in power is for them to not exist at all.

I present to you Aaron Sorkin’s latest, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a movie which offers another searing example of protestors who found themselves put into a violent situation, one started by the police, when they failed to make their voices heard in the right way in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention 1968. Not granted a permit, harassed by the police, bullied and cornered, the protests got violent. These men, months later, found themselves arrested, not because they had done something wrong, but because those in power felt just a little bit of that power slipping away.

Sorkin is no stranger to the courtroom drama, and certainly no stranger to grandstanding, moralizing, soliloquies; and this film finds plenty of them. Most of these are stirring, most of them are thought provoking, and most are worth listening to. Of course, none of them will be heard by anyone who disagrees with the message. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a movie that could cause people to think and learn, but that would require an open mind and it doesn’t feel like this country is in the right frame of mind to listen, if it ever has been.

What is accomplished here, is the assembling of a fine cast including Jeremy Strong, Sacha Baron Cohen (an undeniable standout), Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Keaton, in order to tell the story of the riots and trial that followed. It is, in a word, riveting.

Rather than presenting the events and then following up with the trial, the film by and large takes place during the trial itself, with characters (either in court or not) explaining what happened during the protests (these are often presented in flashback). A lot of this telling is done through the recollections of Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Redmayne). The two men represent the general approaches taken by liberals during the period (according to the film). Hayden offers the buttoned-up, change through voting philosophy, while Hoffman is the flower child version. They make for a good clash and it feels very Sorkin-esque to see people with like goals argue about methodology.

In the movie, Sorkin uses footage from the actual riots (or what appears to be footage from them) when offering the flashbacks, adding to the film’s sense of authenticity; it’s truth claim. It is a powerful choice and one that works well.

Other choices are less successful. There are moments of the trial one would expect to see—things like the verdict—which are missing. There is, unquestionably, an argument to be made that the verdict is a foregone conclusion and therefore not strictly relevant, but the jump from pre-verdict scenes to post-verdict ones is still rather a shock.

The decision, after the film’s initial setup, to stay so focused on the trial from the point of view of the initial eight defendants—Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is tremendous as the eighth, Bobby Seale—narrows the focus of the work and obfuscates a lot. Chiefly here I’m considering Gordon-Levitt as attorney Richard Schultz, the man prosecuting the case for the Department of Justice. Repeatedly, the film comes back to Schultz’s discomfort not only with the trial occurring in general, but the way in which the judge (Langella) acts during it, and the obvious bias the judge shows. However, because we spend so little time with Schultz, we are unable to assess how and why he continues, we are just given a man who knows he is helping push forward a complete and total miscarriage of justice but who continues to do so nonetheless. It is perplexing.

Bypassing portions of the trial and story of the riots themselves, along with the disquieting nature of what we get to see of Schultz, feel like dropped threads – elements that were written but not shot, or shot but not included in the final film. They are not ruinous to the larger work by any means, but they do diminish it.

That said, it is still a film worth watching. It is a film to be considered by all those who are currently on the streets fighting for justice and by those who argue that back in their day the protests were different or that any of the movements which have made true and lasting change in this country have occurred without reactionary upset or always took place in a peaceful manner.

Not being an expert of the moment in question, I will not tell you that everything you see in the film is the truth, but it is clear that watching “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will bring you closer to the truth of our world today. That’s something a lot of us could use.


photo credit:  Netflix

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