‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Uneasily Balances Levity and Gravity

It’s nearly impossible to watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 without seeing its parallels to our current sociopolitical moment. 

Much like 2020, 1968 found the United States at an existential crossroads, as it grappled with the deeply unpopular Vietnam War and the fierce fight for civil rights. The pressures of those two paradigm shifters, along with a tide of conservatism that Richard Nixon rode to the White House, and the countercultural response, culminated in the story that Aaron Sorkin’s second feature film seeks to recount: the titular trial of the Chicago Seven. The Justice Department charged a group of Vietnam War protesters with inciting violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Their trial was a notorious and shameless miscarriage of justice, executed by an attorney general seeking to settle a score with his predecessor and stamp out countercultural dissent with the law’s sheer weight.

Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Mark Rylance, and Eddie Redmayne in The Trial of the Chicago 7
(courtesy: Netflix/Dreamworks Pictures)

Prosecuting the case is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a by-the-book pragmatist who tries to stay above his department’s cruelty and unscrupulousness. Fighting the charges are student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeffrey Strong), and conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Bobby Seales (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a member of the Black Panther Party, is roped into the trial, even though he had no association with the other men. The trial is a sham, with a presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), that is dismissive, combative, and unethical at every stage.

The farcical nature of the Chicago Seven trial and the fraught state of the union makes for a tricky balancing act. Should Sorkin lean into the madness of the proceedings, or does he convey the tragedy of an authoritarian government steamrolling over its citizens under the flimsy guise of justice?

Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (courtesy: Netflix/Dreamworks Pictures)

Sorkin aims for both. He opens with real-life footage of the Vietnam War lottery drafts and the assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. He intercuts it with Abbie cracking off-color jokes, Jerry giving Molotov cocktail lessons, and Bobby insisting that Chicago won’t be a disaster, all against a zippy rock track and delivered with Sorkin’s trademark cadence. The script is undeniably strong, with all of the verbal bells and whistles that make his screenplays utterly compelling. However, Sorkin’s direction creates an unsettling tension between humor and drama that permeates much of the first half. Jerry’s flirtation with an undercover FBI agent amid a clash between protestors and police feels off-kilter. It becomes downright uncomfortable whenever Bobby is in the courtroom, his civil rights trampled upon while Judge Hoffman, Abbie, and lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) play verbal tennis.

Sorkin couldn’t have known that The Trial of the Chicago 7 would be released amidst global racial justice protests, but his approach still feels off-the-mark, even under the best circumstances. Bobby’s storyline – one of disenfranchisement and blatant racism – sits uneasily with his co-defendants’, and Sorkin struggles to reconcile the two. It’s only towards the end of Bobby’s time on-screen – his case was declared a mistrial – that Sorkin affords the character and his situation the gravity they deserve. 

Bobby’s exit also allows Sorkin to explore the casual corruption that has poisoned the case and, most interestingly, white liberalism’s limits in achieving substantive change. He dials the levity back, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers a sharp critique of America’s political and justice systems and those on both sides who are unwilling to demand better from them. The film’s most effective messenger is Abbie. He proves to be the film’s savviest character as he calmly but brutally excoriates Tom’s approach to justice and runs circles around Richard Schultz while on the stand. Ironically, Sorkin’s decision to play the drama straight in the final stretch only heightens the court’s outlandishness and the sharp wit behind Abbie’s shtick, while emphasizing the grave consequences of undermining our country’s institutions for punitive gains. 

Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (courtesy: Netflix/Dreamworks Pictures)

Aaron Sorkin is truly an actor’s screenwriter, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 boasts an ensemble cast that excels in transforming his thematically rich and engaging dialogue into fully realized characters. Everyone is excellent, but Sacha Baron Cohen is in another outstanding league as Abbie Hoffman. His witty and thoughtful performance shines brightest, especially in the third act, and is easily deserving of a Best Actor Oscar nomination. 

The Best Supporting Actor race would be an embarrassment of riches. Frank Langella most immediately stands out for his portrayal of Judge Hoffman, which oscillates from doddering to genuinely scary with intense command. Jeremy Strong, fresh off an Emmy win for Succession, is nearly unrecognizable and very enjoyable as Jerry. Yahya Abdul Mateen II, another newly-minted Emmy winner for Watchmen, makes the most of his time as Bobby Seales, expertly conveying the multitudes of being a Black man in the criminal justice system that hits very close to home. In the third act, Michael Keaton pops up as former attorney general and would-be star witness Ramsey Clark and quickly takes hold of the film’s energy by way of his undeniable screen presence. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a film that both succeeds and struggles because of its timeliness. The film is a sharply crafted, strongly acted addition to the Sorkin canon that speaks clearly to our moment, reminding us what happens when corruption in the justice system is allowed to run unchecked. However, with the upcoming election’s stakes at nearly incalculable heights, the message’s delivery doesn’t always meet the moment’s severity. Perhaps Sorkin’s balancing of levity and profundity would’ve landed better in a less delicate period. It isn’t his fault that the timing sucks, but the effort is valiant enough to appreciate.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available on Netflix.

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