THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, aside from providing a quick history lesson and entertaining drama, can serve as an infuriating 130-minute primer on how the vaunted American “justice” system “works”—when it’s full-deck rigged from the tiptop down. That its look back at events of war-riven 1968-9 arrived in plague-stricken 2020 is fitting, the miserable year filled with impassioned street protests and nefarious legal rape attempts issued from ghouls on high. Good thing we’re not a “shithole country.”
1969. Five months after Mayor Daley’s “police riot” disfigured the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the newly installed Nixon administration goes after the protest movement in a show trial broadside aimed at decapitating its varied leadership. Among those charged with inciting riot, conspiracy, and other malfeasance are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II). They’re defended by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), with prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) working on behalf of the government, in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Good luck.
Written & directed by Aaron Sorkin (his second directorial gig after 2017s superb Molly’s Game), well done in both categories, with a few not-unexpected dalliances from exact chronology and a couple of flourish moments invented for dramatic point-driving: these amount to quibbles in that the essential truth comes across: the government’s case was bogus, as close to honest and fair as you’d find in what was then the Soviet Union or Red China. The amateur revolutionaries/citizens/patriots/ had fact and decency on their side, but so what?—that means zipkuss if you can’t pass the all-important Popsicle v. Hell test. Wake up and smell the barbed wire.
Acting is quite good, with keenest kudos going to Redmayne as logic-centered Hayden, Strong as self-sabotaging naif Rubin and Langella, as the kind of even-handed dispenser of justice who would be at home in the Inquisition. Power to the people!
As per any Sorkin effort, there’s plenty of smart dialogue, and naturally, the challenging personalities, with their passions and antics, provided lots of ammo, but we got a particular wry smile out of the brief exchange sympathetic but aware lawyer Kunstler has with a confidently rebellious Yippie phone receptionist—–KUNSTLER: “Maybe you don’t want to call it the Conspiracy Office.” BERNADINE: “They understand the irony, and appreciate the humor.” KUNSTLER: “I wouldn’t count on it.” BERNADINE: “Most people are smart, Bill.” KUNSTLER: “Well, if you believe that, you’ll get your heart broken every day of your life.” If I had a nickel….
Produced for $35,000,000, it was intended for theatrical release but Covid got in the way: scant theatrical showings took in a token $107,423. With Alex Sharp (as activist Rennie Davis), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (as Fred Hampton, prominent and conveniently assassinated Black Panther), Ben Shenkman, Michael Keaton (as Ramsey Clark, Pres.Johnson’s Attorney General, an authentic Good Guy, rare but there), John Doman (as John Mitchell, Nixon’s prick Attorney General, later known as prison Inmate No. 24171-157.), Caitlin FitzGerald (FBI finkette, a fictional invention for dramatic purposes), Noah Robbins, Daniel Flaherty, J.C. McKenzie.
* The trial and its assorted crew have previously been interpreted in Conspiracy: The Trail of The Chicago Eight (1987, with Peter Boyle, Robert Carradine, Martin Sheen, Elliott Gould), Steal This Movie! (2000, with Vincent D’Onofrio) and The Chicago Eight (2011, with Gary Cole and Philip Baker Hall).
Bonus kvetch—-OK, in earlier Hollywood heyday, moviegoers in England or their outposts had to put up with some awful accent attacks by American actors pretending to be British, Irish, what have you. And..not well. This movie is one of those that in recent years have oddly chosen to return much-delayed fire by having made-in-USA characters played by Brits, Aussies, and so on. Now, there’s nothing really wrong with that, especially since almost always the actors are so darn good. But, seriously, is this now like, an official thing? Like TV crime shows with multi-racial gangs. Who made the call? Chicago barricades are manned by Redmayne, Cohen, Rylance and Sharp. And they’re great. But, well, just sayin’…..