Review: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ uses American’s past to hold a mirror up to its present

The topical period piece is hardly a new phenomenon. Examining our past such that we might examine our present is a function of art, and if executed well a surefire way to be on everyone’s mind come awards season.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story of the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During that event, several groups came to the city to protest the war in Vietnam. Thousands of people protested for days before violence broke out, and the situation devolved into what we now know to be a police riot. The film picks up the following year when eight men, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale are on trial for conspiracy to incite a riot.

Aaron Sorkin has been developing this film for years, but it’s hard to imagine a world where the timing of its release could be better.

As with every large ensemble piece, the real story here is the performances. The (mostly) single location of the courtroom makes the main plot feel somewhat like a play, and almost everyone gets a moment to shine.

Mark Rylance is his reliable self as lead defence attorney William Kunstler, whose long hair catches the ire of the judge. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the up and coming conservative prosecutor with his usual skill and in this case, a sense of reserved anger to be in the position he is in, working for men who he doesn’t fully agree with. Michael Keaton shows up for two scenes and is pitch-perfect in each of them.

One of the films standout performances is from Frank Langella as judge Julius Hoffman, a man who is either completely incompetent or evil or at least the latter due to the former. Whether he is citing a defence attorney for contempt or having Bobby Seale beaten, bound, and gagged in his courtroom (yes, a thing that actually happened), his lack of empathy and firm belief that he is in the right is a thing to behold. The unearned confidence of an incompetent man is a difficult thing to pull off, and Langella threads that needle perfectly.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is also powerful as Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale. Seale was forced to be on trial without his lawyer and denied to the right to represent himself, a blatant show of racism toward a man who was tried as part of the group but not actually a part of it. Abdul-Mateen II is an actor who is going places, and the intelligence and rage he portrays here in even just a few scenes is incredible.

The rest of the defendants are also excellently cast. Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, and John Carroll Lynch all show up and put in good work. Strong’s performance as yippie Jerry Rubin maybe being the most surprising, but the real revelation of this film is Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong / The Trial of the Chicago 7
Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong / The Trial of the Chicago 7

I feel like we forget that among Baron Cohen’s shtick and stable of weird characters, he is also a talented actor. Abbie Hoffman was one of the most outspoken, unreserved, and funny, of the men on trial and Baron Cohen, brings all this to the table without descending into a caricature or playing to the cheap seats and brings real humanity to the character.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is what you might call an actors showcase. The type of big ensemble production that people complain we haven’t seen since the 1990s, where a huge cast of talented actors at all stages in their careers tells an important story. A story from America’s past that mirrors its present –even today the police have been rioting for months, brutalizing people who are protesting police brutality.

Aaron Sorkin is a hell of a writer with a strong voice and style to his dialogue, but if the film does have a weak spot, it might be that that is less true for Sorkin as a director. Not to say that the film is poorly directed, but rather that the film might have been truly great if filtered through a stronger directorial voice.

That’s a nitpick though, to say that I wish that the film is better than it is, but it’s true. That still leaves us with a good film to watch, though, and you should totally watch it. The choice to frame the entire story through the trial gives all the actors a chance to shine, the flashbacks to events as we hear testimony leaves us with a real sense of how stories can be distorted for political gain. Fast-paced editing keeps the whole thing engaging from start to finish.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in a limited run in theatres right now and will debut on Netflix this Friday, October 16th, 2020.