“Do you have contempt for your government?”
“I’ll tell you Mr. Schultz, it’s nothing compared to the contempt that my government has for me.”
By Chris Narine
The 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 was, if nothing else, an irregular but truthful moment that had served as a demonstration of the most beguiling actions set forth by our own American government. Whether it be the notion of a problematic judicial system, racial discrimination, or the countless lives that were taken away by the Vietnam war, the trial itself was undoubtedly fueled by political reasoning. In today’s context, a snapshot into such a harrowing moment can only serve as a reminder of how history happens to repeat itself, but through the eyes of Aaron Sorkin, this event proves to be something beyond its own relevancy, as the passion and spirit he brings forth here is, if nothing else, unequivocally American.
For the last three decades, Sorkin has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most defining and most influential screenwriters; with a knack for penning fast-paced and quick-witted dialogue, as he worked among the likes of David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Rob Reiner, and Bennett Miller, as well as working heavily in television, by serving as the creator behind The West Wing, The Newsroom and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In 2017, he found himself working behind the camera for a change with his directorial debut Molly’s Game, which was led by a show-stopping performance from Jessica Chastain, and just three years later he returns with his sophomore picture.
If there’s one thing that’s for certain about Sorkin’s own instincts as a filmmaker, it’s that he finds comfort in shaping his own artistic voice through the guise of his past collaborators, and while he may have a ways to go before reaching the creative heights of some of those auteurs, it’s always lovely to see him carry on what he clearly has admired in his own creative ventures. Where Molly’s Game sought him channeling the slick, stylish craft of David Fincher’s works and perhaps a hint of Danny Boyle’s own manic energy, what Sorkin aims for this time around is a little more stripped-down and in tune with the old-school sensibilities that Rob Reiner brought to A Few Good Men or that perhaps Bennett Miller had even displayed in Moneyball, and it’s all the better for it.
Whether it be the passionate spirit that remains present throughout the film or the sense of coy earnestness about America’s most damaging flaws, The Trial of Chicago 7 tells its tale with the same level of gravitas as it does with the level of empathy it has for its subject matter. Opening on a powerfully compiled montage that gives us context for the events that had occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, we witness a reminder of the deaths of some of history’s most infamous and influential political figures, before being thrust into a narrative that brings exposition and depth on the Chicago 7. It’s deliberate choices like these that emphasize how exuberant Sorkin’s work behind the camera is, and through his own natural charm combined with the sensational courtroom tension, we get a biopic that prevails with its relevancy; telling a timeless tale of political mishaps and the all-consuming toxicity that plagues those who’ve been forced to reside in it.
With a true story as dense as this is, much of the heavy lifting must be given credit towards the ensemble cast that has to sell this material, and the ensemble cast on display couldn’t be any more impressive. Of the eight men accused during the trial, you have defendants Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). On the legal side, you have District Attorneys Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Foran (J.C. Mackenzie), as well as defense attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), while Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) watches over them.
Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a charismatic, moving turn as Abbie Hoffman, that displays a certain range he has, unlike anything he’s ever done before, as does Eddie Redmayne, who’s electric turn here commands the screen whenever he appears on it, while Jeremy Strong hides any trace of the straight-faced anxiousness he’s masterfully displayed on Succession, and instead delivers a wonderfully comedic, exuberant performance as Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella is terrifying as Judge Hoffman, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings in another terrific performance as the conflicted Schultz. However, of the large ensemble, it’s Yahya Abdul-Matten II and Mark Rylance that especially stand out, as they both serve as perhaps the story’s two biggest sources of empathy.
The trial itself was fallibly constructed to disregard the Vietnam protests and enrage the protesters, but every time the story takes a moment to focus on Bobby Seale, and his own tragic interference with the Chicago 7, we’re reminded of the greater injustices that our own Government has failed to put an end to, and through Yahya’s fearless, gut-wrenching performance we’re immediately reminded of the horrors that people of color have endured whilst living in America. As Kunstler, Rylance brings forth the same charm and humanity he’s put on display throughout his entire career, only here he brings an unhinged edge that serves as a way of bringing this infamously radical attorney to life without ever appearing as a caricature.
With an ensemble this large and a story this dense, perhaps certain elements could’ve used more development or screen time than others, whether it be with the minimal time spent between Bobby and Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), or the lack of screen time that Froines and Weiner seem to be given in contrast with the other defendants. Despite these shortcomings, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is still a triumphant work of art. Timely, relevant, and above all else necessary, the spirit that inhabits this thing rouses with a fiery passion, and now more than ever, it’s this kind of energy not only in filmmaking but in art on the whole, that demands the proper attention to help combat the misfortunes of political misguidances. The whole world is watching.