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The Trial of the Chicago 7

By the time you read this review, one of the most tumultuous elections in history will have already unfolded, for better or worse. No matter what the outcome, it is fair to say that these have been difficult and confusing times, regardless of where your loyalties lie. As we all know, however, it wasn’t just the general election that divided our nation. While the COVID pandemic swept the country, civil unrest also reached a fever pitch. Many of us watched in horror as chaos unfolded in the streets, with peaceful protestors and violent agitators battling with authorities on a nightly basis. Images such as these, as terrifying as they are, are nothing new.

In the riveting drama THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, Syracuse University alum Aaron Sorkin (who serves as both writer and director) has delivered a film that may be set in 1968, but could not feel any more powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking than it does in this exact moment in history.

As several groups of protestors descended upon Chicago and the National Democratic Convention in 1968, each one had a different approach as to how to spread their message. Some, like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) from the Students for a Democratic Society were thoughtful and introspective in their approach, while others, including Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were far more outspoken and bombastic. While everyone was possessed and fueled by different beliefs, they were all united in their passion for the power of protest.

As each group was denied a permit that would allow them to protest in a park nearby the Convention, anger and frustrations grew. The authorities and local government did little to appease the peaceful protestors, and as Ron Burgundy would say, things escalated quickly. By the time all was said and done, a full-scale riot had broken out. Dozens were injured, and 8 men were put on trial for inciting a riot, among other charges. One of these, Bobby Searle (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leader of the Black Panther Party, had nothing to do with the events that unfolded, but was charged just the same.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 runs well over two hours, yet it remains electric throughout. Sorkin, best known for his searing screenplays, relied heavily on actual testimony and events, yet found a way to incorporate his unique brand of storytelling in order to keep the viewer engaged. The structure of the film, travelling from the courtroom, to the events as they unfolded, and then back to the courtroom again, expertly heightened the drama and enhanced the humor. Furthermore, the cast was absolutely magnificent. Baron Cohen, Redmayne, Strong, John Carroll Lynch (as David Dillinger) and Mark Rylance (as defense counsel William Kunstler) captured the essence of their characters so completely that I fully believed that every word of dialogue spoken was coming from a place of true authenticity. Though they didn’t all see eye-to-eye, they were a unique unit that was unified in their disbelief at the injustice that was unfolding. Abdul-Mateen II, fresh off his Emmy win for WATCHMEN, is likely to find his name on the Oscar shortlist as well. His visceral performance was masterful, effectively embodying a man who was on trial for simply being in the city of Chicago more than anything else. His give-and-take with Frank Langella, (who was brilliantly infuriating as the crusty Judge Julius Hoffman) is perhaps the most frightening aspect of a story that is all too familiar. Despite his constant insistence that his rights were being violated, Searle was repeatedly told to sit down and shut up. His freedom was at stake, yet his basic liberties were never justly obliged. Judge Hoffman was content to leave impartiality at the door, and do everything within his considerable power to assure that justice could never be served.

Though set in 1968, THE TRIAL OF CHICAGO 7 takes place in a time where an election was imminent, and political ideologies were at the forefront of the public consciousness. Citizens had a great distrust in the government, and thousands of people were dying. People were protesting in the streets, and neighbors, friends, and family members who once saw eye-to-eye were suddenly distrustful and angry with one another. It is a perfect encapsulation of what is unfolding in the cities, streets, and households at this very moment, and the type of film that begs to be seen, whatever side of the aisle you may find yourself on.


(Now streaming on Neflix)


Brian Miller