Updated: Feb 28
"I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people". That line, spoken by Abbie Hoffman more than 50 years ago, could just as easily be spoken today and be equally applicable. The parallels to today don't end there, and that's by no means unintentional. It's evident from the start why writer-director Aaron Sorkin, that peerless purveyor of pacy prose, has chosen this time to make and release The Trial of the Chicago 7, which premiered on Netflix this weekend.
1968 was arguably the most tumultuous year in modern U.S. history. The year began with an escalation in hostilities in the quagmire of Vietnam with the Tet Offensive by thousands of Viet Cong on January 30, and the corresponding sharp rise in the numbers of dead young American soldiers. That shook the administration, accelerated public opposition to the war, and led to the stunning refusal to run for re-election by President Lyndon B. Johnson on March 31 with his famous last line in a televised address that was unknown to even his closest advisers ("I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President"). Soon after, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis on April 4, and Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles on June 6, ripped the heart out of the nation. Riots and protests broke out in over a hundred U.S. cities. The pacifism of MLK gave way to the more militant Black Panthers. This was the seething cauldron into which the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago at the end of August. It became the magnet for protestors of all stripes, pro and anti war, with thousands converging upon the city. Richard J Daley, the uber-strongman mayor who had been key to John Kennedy winning the presidency against Nixon in 1960, decided that an overwhelming show of force by the Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard was required. Coupled with severe restrictions on the ability of peaceful protestors to protest anywhere near the convention and pigeonhole them in a confined space near Lincoln Park, the stage was set for a confrontation that would turn into a conflagration.
That history lesson, dear reader, of a seminal year for not only Chicago, the wonderful city of broad shoulders I have called home for a quarter century, but for the country as a whole, is required to fully grasp the backdrop and significance of the courtroom drama that unfolds in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin, whose past writing credits include A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010) and TV's The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Newsroom (2012-2014), and whose directorial debut was Molly's Game (2017), has a trademark "we are walking, we are talking" style. He stifles it to a large degree here because the predominantly closed door courtroom setting demands it. But by no means does that diminish his razor sharp repartee and rapid fire exchanges. Once you are introduced to the ensemble of characters (and what a set of characters they are) in the first 15 minutes, the actual trial begins. The next 2 hours are riveting cinema.
Abbie Hoffman (a delightful Sacha Baron Cohen, perfectly cast as the troublemaking rabble rouser, you expect no less from Borat) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong from HBO's Succession in another, ahem, strong performance) are the quintessential flower power hippies. Tom Hayden (a superb Eddie Redmayne who played Stephen Hawking in 2014's The Theory of Everything) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are the more buttoned-down student activists. David Dellinger, (John Carroll Lynch whose peaceful bald visage you have seen in countless movies, most notably as Mac McDonald in 2016's The Founder) the oldest of the lot, is a pacifist and conscientious objector. Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) are the other two sacrificial lambs. Also, in the mix is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the Black Panthers. (The revelation of how the 8 became 7 is a spoiler I won't reveal). Their defense attorney William Kunstler is played pitch perfect, equal parts feisty and weary, by Mark Rylance, who played the haunted spy Abel in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2015) for which he won an Oscar. The lead prosecutor is Richard Shultz played by Joseph Gordon Levitt from many Christopher Nolan movies like Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), playing a straight arrow who is at times conflicted. The villain of the piece is undoubtedly the presiding judge Julius Hoffman, no relation to the accused Abbie Hoffman, as he unintentionally hilariously points out to all. He is played by the naturally cantankerous looking Frank Langella who coincidentally had played a superb Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008).
It is possible to go a bit overboard in drawing comparisons to today. For example, the scene where Tom Hayden tells Abbie Hoffman of how the progressives will be viewed 50 years hence seems too clairvoyant for its time. But there are also grim reminders of the broad powers the government has that can be terrifying when in unscrupulous hands. The manipulation of legal statutes to charge someone with a crime that the statute was never meant for, the stifling of free speech just because it hurts powerful egos, the deliberate instigation and unwillingness to de-escalate explosive situations by law enforcement, all resonate even today. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not only about the 7 people who were tried, but also an indictment of the city and country that couldn't/can't handle the truth when the whole world was/is watching.
October 18, 2020