In The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men) attempts to show the events that led up to the court case, as well as some of the goings-on both in and outside the courtroom. While his storytelling might not be 100% historically accurate, Sorkin manages to make what could have been a boring courtroom drama engaging, entertaining, and informative.
In the wake of the Chicago riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, there has been a national leadership change. The Johnson administration has declined to bring any charges against the riots’ supposed leaders, having concluded that the police force’s heavy-handed tactics under Mayor Daley’s orders were the real cause. But President Nixon’s attorney general has a bone to pick and decides the eight supposed leaders can be charged with conspiracy. The trial that ensues becomes a spectacle of counter-culture values led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) versus the government. Complicating matters is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose bias is almost cartoonish, starting with making sure everyone knows he and Abbie are not related.
The story is solid, although Sorkin very likely took liberties with the facts to add entertainment value. It works. Unlike many courtroom dramas, the tale never becomes dull or overlong. The characters are amusing, frustrating, and consistently larger-than-life. By all accounts, they were in real life as well. While there are chaotic moments, including flipping back and forth between actual footage from the riots and filmed dramatizations, this seems intentional – particularly given that real accounts vary depending on which side of the protests someone fell. There is some violence and harsh language, but it’s not overdone and seems both authentic and purposeful in terms of the portrayal of what really happened.
Each acting performance is vibrant and realistic. Despite the government efforts that started the process, Langella’s Judge Hoffman quickly becomes the story’s real villain through his exceptional portrayal. Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden is alternately fiery and subdued in all the right measures. Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is splendid, except when he concentrates more on Abbie’s accent than the performance – a rare error for this talented actor.
The sets could have been any park and any courtroom, but the feel is clearly Chicago in the 1960s. The mood is cemented by the very detailed period costuming, right down to what the originals wore as this trial proceeded.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a well-conceived and stark reminder of the cyclical nature of politics and protest that should not be missed. More importantly, it is a timely testament of the trials the United States still must go through as a nation so that everyone can partake of the American dream equally.