The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie cast: Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins, Alex Sharp, Michael Keaton, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins
The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie director: Aaron Sorkin
The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie rating: 4 stars
In September 1969, a trial of the ‘Chicago Seven’ began: seven people were accused by the state of inciting rioting and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. It was a motley bunch. Long-haired, bearded, happily stoned Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong), prosaic student leader Tom Hayden (Redmayne) and his cohort Rennie Davis (Sharp), much older peacenik David Dellinger (Lynch), and two others, John Froines (Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Robbins), who sort of hang around on the sidelines wondering what they are doing there. They are there just to be able to say, one suspects, this classic line: ‘this is the Academy award of protests, and it is an honour just to be nominated’. So cracking, so Sorkin.
The two-hour-long film stays mainly in the courtroom, while taking occasional sideways leaps into the outside world. An early warning signal of how the chips are stacked against the seven is evident in the way the prosecutors, led by Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) are given the nod: Lyndon B Johnson is history, they are told, this is the administration of President Richard Nixon, and those seven are to be found guilty, whatever it takes. We see black-and-white real-time footage of the demonstrations, the police brutality and the tear-gas shells, the cracking of skulls and spraying blood, skilfully transposed on to the film. There are also conversations between the seven, out on bail, and their lawyer, William Kunstler (Rylance), which point to the differences between them, as well as the crucial thread that unifies them: they are all peace-mongers.
Barring a couple of slack instances when it slackens, the film never loses pace. It was a time when young people were being drafted and sent off to fight America’s impossible war in Vietnam, anti-war protests were rising in University campuses, and the people who were rising up in protest included youthful hippies who smoked up and made the two-finger peace signs and sang songs of revolution, as well as those who wanted to do more.
The joy of watching a film that is written so beautifully is all down to Sorkin. Everything feels of the time. The lines are laced with acerbity, humour and, in the right places, pathos. And the ensemble cast is perfect, not putting a single foot wrong in the recreation of that historical event, in which the concerted attempts by the state to quash counter-culture pushback was met with failure. The performances are all very good, especially Rylance as the lawyer who knows just which buttons to push, Cohen as the guy who keeps pushing them, and Langella, as the old-style legislator who rules his courtroom with a lethal mix of disdain and dislike, handing out contempt charges like they were confetti. And Keaton, who is on for just a few minutes, makes his presence felt. A film with mostly men talking (it would comprehensively fail the Bechdel test; there are only two women in it, and they are completely dispensable) to each other, is spectacular nevertheless, because this is a true story of those seven men, that long-drawn trial, and what the impact of the trial meant.
The group was also called the Chicago Eight. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Mateen) was arraigned with the seven, even when he had nothing to do with the planning of the demonstration. He was there just for four hours, to make a speech, but he was thrown in with the seven, just to make a point. Racism is in the frame from the beginning, as we see Seale struggling to be heard. But his voice is quelled by Judge Julius Hoffman (Langella), who refuses to listen. It takes a shocking incident involving Seale being dragged off ‘to be dealt with’ by the marshals, and brought back into the court-room, gagged and bound, to drive home the point. Someone asks him, ‘can you breath?’ It’s a bit obvious, but you know exactly what’s being referenced. The question also forces viewers to examine how far the US has moved from then to now, not just in terms of all-round racist behaviour, but in terms of the much wider issue of freedom. What you can do, what you can say, and how far you can go, are all questions that are constantly being asked in today’s America.
As they are in India. Watching the vicious attack on protestors, with cops riding on the back of complicit officialdom, reminds you of the similar things happening around us. The trial of the Chicago Seven took over six months before the defendants walked free. Closer home, with protestors being charge-sheeted and arrested, freedom seems a long way off. As this rousing and timely film shouts out, channeling the popular cry of those times: the whole world is watching.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 begins streaming on Netflix from October 16.