Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes an event we're all familiar with and reveals a lesser-known aspect of it. The film is set a year after the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention, when seven individuals have been charged with a series of crimes, including conspiracy. Key among them are activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), comedian Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), and Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale (Aquaman's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Representing the government is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); the defendants – minus Seale, whose lawyer is MIA – are repped by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Frank Langella plays Julius Hoffman, the not-entirely-unbiased judge hearing the case.
That trial went on for more than six months. Sorkin could never fit every detail into a two-hour film. He instead does an excellent job paring it down to give viewers a flavor for how dramatic it was. There's tension between Hoffman, who takes the proceedings as a joke, and Hayden, who understands the unpleasant ramifications of a guilty verdict. Schultz's job is to prove that all these disparate players conspired in advance to cause the disruption. They didn't, but because they were all there together, making it look as though they did is pretty easy. Seale, at one point, is bound and gagged in the courtroom after repeatedly pointing out that he's being tried without representation. (Yes, that really happened.) These are just some of the obstacles.
In a recent press junket with members of the Critics Choice Association (myself included), Sorkin said he relied on court transcripts and published books for his screenplay. There was, however, one angle he could never cover that way – the personal one. For that, he interviewed Tom Hayden, who provided a sense of what it was like behind the scenes. Doing so proves to have been a shrewd move on Sorkin's part, as the personal side is what ties The Trial of the Chicago 7 together. All the defendants were there to protest peacefully, yet their approaches differed, from merely making their presence known to actively seeking to stir the pot.
In other words, this is as much a human drama as a courtroom drama. With differing ideas about how they should defend themselves, the participants are constantly pulling in opposite directions, with Kunstler trying to draw them together. The question of what each of them is willing to endure in the name of their beliefs becomes central. No one writes material of this nature quite like Sorkin. Once again, his dialogue is so smart and so eloquent that you hang on every word.
An outstanding cast brings that dialogue to life. The standout, to the degree that there is one among this ensemble, is Rylance. The actor captures the frustration Kunstler has in wrangling his clients, as well as the shrewdness that helps him envision ways to counter arguments made by the prosecution. (He gets multiple contempt of court charges in the process.) Rylance already has an Oscar for his work in Bridge of Spies. He deserves consideration for another.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes a piece of history and looks at it from the inside. Even if a couple of the characters get short shrift, the film's examination of the impact of protest is both fascinating and eerily timely.
out of four
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.