"The Trial of the Chicago 7" puts the past on the stand to galvanize the present
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch and Michael Keaton. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Now playing at select theatres; streaming as of Oct. 16 on Netflix. 130 minutes. PG
By Peter Howell
The epochal court case recalled a half-century later in Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7" was famous for disruption and was populated with enough players to fill a Russian novel. I remember as an enthralled young teenager reading the nightly dispatches about the case published in The Toronto Telegram (RIP), before delivering copies of the local paper to my neighbourhood.
Previous screen incarnations wrestled with how much of the story to tell and which characters to focus on, with inconsistent results.
The saga finds form, substance and wit in writer/director Sorkin's resonant account of the politically motivated conspiracy trial of 1969-70, featuring anti-Vietnam War protesters who had clashed with baton-wielding cops outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In word and image, Sorkin replicates the rat-tat-tat-tat feel of this media-savvy legal showdown, which transfixed not just me way back when. As the protesters chant in the film: "The whole world is watching."
Sorkin's rendering of this oft-told tale finds much to psychically link the paranoia of Richard Nixon's presidency of the day with the megalomania of Donald Trump's current regime. The movie puts the past on the stand to inform the present — and also to galvanize it. You don't need to have been alive during the heyday of the Chicago 7 to appreciate how dedicated the youth of the day were to ending a bad war and to thwarting an evil administration.
A crackerjack ensemble cast, sure to be remembered at awards time, competes for our attention but there's nary a bad casting choice among the players.
Sacha Baron Cohen is a welcome and anchoring presence as wisecracking Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, who lives by the mantra of one of his book titles: "Revolution for the Hell of It." He has rivals on opposite ends of the political spectrum: his unrelated judicial nemesis, Justice Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a martinet eager to punish transgressions big and small; and Abbie's Chicago 7 co-defendant Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) co-founder who objects to the Yippie firebrand's anarchic antics, deeming them anathema to real social change.
Abbie Hoffman finds a kindred spirit in fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of "Succession"), who shares his love of publicity-generating street theatre. They and their fellow defendants risk a 10-year jail sentence but they're determined to upend the court proceedings and get under Justice Hoffman's skin.
The very serious Hayden is close to his cerebral friend Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), another SDS co-founder, and he also seems more ideologically aligned with fatherly peacenik David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a Boy Scout troop leader who somehow got swept up with the hippie hordes.
These five are the main figures of the Chicago 7. The other two are John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), who are more followers than leaders and who joke on camera that they don't know why they're on trial.
And there's an eighth man, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was not a leader of the Chicago protests and who rightly suspects he's being lumped in with the Chicago 7 for racial reasons. He's denied due process by Justice Hoffman and forced to defend himself without a lawyer. The film's most shocking scene — as it was in the real-life trial — comes when Justice Hoffman orders Seale to be bound and gagged in court because the outspoken Panther refuses to be silent about his mistreatment.
The main attorneys in the film are Mark Rylance's wily defence attorney William Kunstler and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s shrewd federal prosecutor Richard Schultz. Sorkin does some neat sleight-of-hand late in the film when he has Kunstler play-acting as Schultz, to prepare the Chicago 7 defendants for the hard questions they'll get in court.
There are so many characters and narrative possibilities in the film, it's to Sorkin's credit that he keeps the story flowing smoothly, even as he dives in and out of flashbacks to illustrate the Chicago mayhem that led to the arrests and trial.
Sorkin has grown exponentially from his 2017 directorial debut, "Molly's Game," a high-stakes poker drama starring Jessica Chastain that lost its way midway through its plodding 140-minute running time.
The far more consequential "The Trial of the Chicago 7" runs a leaner 130 minutes. It leaves you wanting more, in a good way. The whole world should watch it.