Police beating peaceful protesters. Clouds of tear gas filling the streets. Black Americans murdered with impunity. A dangerous President who abuses his power. It might sound like just another slow news day in 2020, but the awful real events behind The Trial Of The Chicago 7 took place in 1968 – a potent reminder of just how little has changed in 50 years.
Aaron Sorkin’s weighty, worthy recreation of the show trial that galvanised an entire generation bursts with energy and star power, even if it lacks some of the emotional heft it needs to really connect the dots of the last half century. As earnest, dramatic and appropriately barbed as any film that’s managed to come out this year, it feels like a safe frontrunner in an Oscar race that might not even happen now – a fitting mess for a film about such a fucked-up chapter of American history.
However bad 2020 is, 1968 was worse. In March, American troops massacred 500 Vietnamese villagers in My Lai. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In May, anti-war protestors at Columbia University were attacked by police. Robert Kennedy was gunned down in June. By summer, people were at breaking point – even more so when the new Vice President (Hubert Humphrey) announced he would be supporting the Vietnam War, signing the death warrants of thousands more young Americans. When Humphrey came to Chicago for the Democratic Party convention in August, 10,000 students staged a peaceful protest – and the city’s police force met them with wooden clubs, tear gas and rifles.
The film picks up the action a few months later when seven student leaders found themselves in court – now at the centre of an absurd public trial designed to make an example of the anti-war cause. There’s the moderate left intellectuals (headed by Eddie Redmayne), the stoner “Yippie” activists (Sacha Baron Cohen and a completely unrecognisable Jeremy Strong from Succession), and one Black Panther (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from Watchmen, and next year’s Candyman) who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but all seven know they’re not there for justice.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt prosecutes with conservative coldness, Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies, Ready Player One) defends with buttery calm, Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) presides as the spectacularly corrupt Judge Julius Hoffman and Sorkin – known for scripting wordy classics like The West Wing and The Social Network – writes and directs the whole thing like a blockbuster legal drama.
Unfolding at a surprisingly breakneck pace for a film seated almost entirely in a courtroom, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is all of Sorkin’s strengths and weaknesses in one well-polished punch. Full of grown-up grandstanding and exhilarating back-and-forth dialogue, no one is better at un-muddying the swamp of American politics or at making densely packed drama sound quite as effortless and exciting. At the same time, he’s never been too good at laying his foundations very deep – and the film is practically overflowing with great actors who don’t have much to work with. Steven Spielberg was once signed-on to direct Sorkin’s script before he decided to take the reins himself, and it’s hard not to think what he would have made of it instead – putting some much-needed emotion and flair back into a story that ought to burn with the ferocious political passion of the ’60s.
Still, with a cast this strong, it’s hard to imagine anyone else reading between Sorkin’s lines. Cohen and Strong stand out among the starry ensemble, but Rylance and Abdul-Mateen II stand even taller – Rylance anchoring the film with a softly spoken, heroic line of liberal reasoning that puts him alongside To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch in the halls of great movie lawyers, and Abdul-Mateen II unleashes practically all of the film’s fire as scapegoat Bobby Seale.
As Seale is dragged into the courtroom in chains, a gag rammed in his mouth to prevent him from defending himself from the systemic racism and corruption miring the whole legal process, the film touches upon something bigger than itself – something that speaks to the same mood filling the streets of Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis this year. Pushed back into the comfortable mould of a worthy Hollywood drama, the rest of the film doesn’t burn quite as ferociously, even if it does still stand as a brilliant, thrilling piece of angry social history.
- Director: Aaron Sorkin
- Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne
- Released: In cinemas now, October 16 (Netflix)