December 12, 2020 – Arguably, the trial of the Chicago Seven (eight, if you count Bobby Seale) was the trial of the century, although the O.J. Simpson trial garnered more media attention because of the TV coverage.
The Chicago Seven trial was a clash of cultures, with the establishment, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and president Richard Nixon on one side, against the anti-establishment, anti-war protesters who came to Chicago the protest the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Clashes between the police and protesters became violent and many people were arrested.
The story of the Chicago Seven, however, starts with grand jury indictments against them (as well as eight police officers) the following year. Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella of “Frost/Nixon”) draws the case. The trial would drag on for nearly six months, and Hoffman seemed to be out of his depth from the beginning.
This film was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (“Molly's Game”) a man who specializes in political and legal dramas. Sorkin depicts the trial as a political trial, ordered by U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell (played by John Doman of “Cold Pursuit”) who is seeking revenge against his predecessor, Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) who he feels disrespected him. Clark chose not to prosecute the Chicago protesters, but Mitchell seems very eager to do so in an angry, profanity-laced scene.
In the same scene, Mitchell orders his best prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “The Walk”) to get a conviction against the Chicago protesters, who are charged with crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots, conspiracy to do so, and other charges under the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Parts of this film are very funny, with the witty Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen of the “Borat” movies) and stoner Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of “Molly's Game”) two of the funnier defendants. For them, the trial is like comic theater. The other defendants are Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of “Aquaman”) Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne of “The Theory of Everything”) Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp of “The Hustle”) David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch of “The Founder”) John Froines (Danny Flaherty of “The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins of “Miss Sloane”).
The humor in the movie slowly dissipates over time, and it gets deadly serious at the end. The movie takes quite few liberties with the facts, inventing some characters and incidents that never happened and warping other events for the sake of added comedy or drama.
The sensational testimony of Ramsay Clark at the trial, which the jury is not allowed to hear, is exaggerated for effect, as is the relationship between Black Party leaders Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of “It Comes at Night”). The movie ties Seale and Hampton together at the trial, and indicates Hampton's death happened while Seale was on trial. In fact, Hampton's assassination at the hands of law enforcement officers happened a month after a Seale's separation from the trial due to Hoffman's mistrial ruling.
Eddie Redmayne would not seem a good choice to play outspoken anti-war activist Tom Hayden, but he does a fine job. Sacha Baron Cohen, on the other hand, seems an obvious choice to play Abbie Hoffman, and he nails the performance. Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) a great actor, turns in a terrific performance as lead defense attorney William Kunstler. Frank Langella is superb playing Judge Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a strong performance as the lead prosecutor in the trial, a character given a more sympathetic slant than is historically accurate.
The movie skips back and forth in time and place between the courtroom, events outside the courtroom, and events that happened months before the trial. It works well enough, but it doesn't quite hit the ball out of the park. It is disappointing that the story doesn't stick to the facts more than it does. Sorkin puts his thumb on the scales of history too hard for my taste. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.