Writer/director Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an entertaining, thoughtful trip back in time to the aftermath of the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
A variety of liberal groups converged on Chicago in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War. The protests quickly became violent, but a justice department investigation (under Lyndon B. Johnson) found that the violence was instigated by the Chicago Police Department. However, once John Mitchell (John Doman) takes over as attorney general under new president Richard Nixon, he decides to prosecute seven activists with charges of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the Black Panther Party would also be added to the defendants list and later bound and gagged during the trial (true story).
Sorkin's knack for witty, rapid-fire dialogue is once again on full display here. It's a message movie, but one that moves quickly and doesn't feel like tedious sermonizing. There's a lot of humor here. The funniest bits involve the staggering number of undercover police officers and FBI agents who'd infiltrated the various protest groups.
Sorkin's script does a good job of reminding people that no political movement is a monolith. Even a movement with shared goals will have internal friction and dissent. The Chicago 7 was a disparate group of people. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were rambunctious hippies who thumbed their noses at conventional society. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was a straitlaced family man. The other four (led by Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne) were white college students.
Cohen and Mark Rylance (as defense attorney William Kunstler) are the standouts in the ensemble cast. Film buffs might be interested to know that the project was originally scheduled to be directed by Steven Spielberg from Sorkin's script in 2007, with the late Heath Ledger in talks to play Tom Hayden. Cohen was also Spielberg's choice for the role of Hoffman. The writer's strike ended up shelving the project, only for Sorkin to revive it himself.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently playing at the Prytania Theatre and the Broad, and it will premiere on Netflix later this month. It was originally scheduled for wide release but sold to Netflix due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
*** Stars (Out of Four)