Movie Review – The Trial of The Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin
My Rating – 4 out of 5
Plot Summary – The Trial of The Chicago 7
In September 1968, the Democratic Party was holding its conference in Chicago. At a time when thousands of young Americans were being drafted to fight the infamous Vietnam War, the mantle of power was also being transferred from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon. It was also the year when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and college campuses across the States were simmering with the tumult of Anti-War protests.
As an attempt to register protest against the War efforts of their Government and possibly, disrupt the Democratic Convention, thousands of students and young hippies (or Yippies) planned to congregate in Chicago. It was meant to be a peaceful protest with no interest in violence. But what actually happened was that large contingents of the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois National Guards blocked the protesters and the skirmishes later devolved into brutal violence unleashed by the law enforcers. Later investigations termed the violence as ‘Police Riot’.
In an ironical twist, the Nixon administration, in its bid to quell anti-war protests, arrested eight people as leaders of the Chicago Riots – Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seales, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner (Bobby Seales was later dropped from the list and the rest thus became known as the Chicago 7). They were charged with inciting riots and a semi farcical trial ensued, a trial which commenced in September 1969 and stretched well into 1970 – This is the backstory on which the movie is based.
“Let us make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over this city”Tom Hayden
The cast is stellar and Aaron Sorkin, known for better products than this, seems to have under utilised a talent such as Eddie Redmayne (As Tom Hayden) and at times he’s let the narrative dissolve into needlessly puerile humour. Otherwise, he’s efficiently transported his audience to the turbulent 60’s and coincidental or not, his movie released in another disturbingly divisive election year. It’s a story of Democracy’s rebellion against a high-handed Administration and ultimately the victory of overwhelming public opinion over petty politics.
The Trial of The Chicago 7 is presided over by the outrageously partisan Judge Hoffman (no relation to Abbie Hoffman – played by Frank Langella) who at one point of time allows court proceedings to go on with one defendant, Bobby Seales (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), sitting with his hands and feet manacled and mouth gagged, for protesting too much! The pro bono lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) is struck down with 26 counts of contempt of court for protesting against Judge Hoffman’s high handedness.
It begins with Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman) summons the Public Prosecutors Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz (J.C. MacKenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and pushes them into prosecuting the eight with serious charges. It’s Mitchell’s way of getting back at the outgoing AG Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). Schultz agrees, rather reluctantly, as their crime does not look so grave to his sensibilities. Thus begins a trial full of witnesses, who are all government employees, appearing for the prosecution, presenting their version of the truth or manufacturing it entirely.
The Judge over rules all attempts of defence objections and only rather reluctantly, agrees to drop Bobby Seale, that too only after his Black Panther mate Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is summarily executed in a supposed Police encounter after he aggressively protests the lack of representation for Bobby. At the end, even with the forceful testimony of outgoing AG Ramsey Clark – which Judge Hoffman doesn’t allow the Jury to hear or consider, the farcical trial ends with the sentencing of all 7 and even the Public Prosecutor seems acutely embarrassed at the tonality of the trial and the open hostility of the Judge towards the defendants and their lawyers.
Conclusion of Review – The Trial of The Chicago 7
The movie is curious in its handling, more so because of powerhouse performers like Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen ( as Abbie Hoffman) don’t really get to flex their acting chops until about the last quarter of the movie. Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong) provides mostly comic relief but also trivialises the gravity of the movie’s theme.
Otherwise an absorbing tale, it carries a note of authenticity about the life and times of the ’60’s – the political turmoil, the massive trauma of an unwanted War and an unapologetic Government turning a blind eye towards the huge loss of human lives – are uncannily echoing today’s times. Sadly, a little bit more gravitas from the director could have lifted this movie from the echelons of good to Great!