wed 17/07/2024

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 review – blistering docudrama that speaks to our times | reviews, news & interviews

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 review – blistering docudrama that speaks to our times

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 review – blistering docudrama that speaks to our times

Aaron Sorkin’s powerhouse film takes us back in time for a political drama that speaks to today’s politically turbulent world

Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong)

Aaron Sorkin’s latest powerhouse drama couldn’t come at a more opportune moment.

Rife with the director’s rapid-fire dialogue, this courtroom drama is set in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and bubbles (sometimes froths) with a raw energy, tackling the thorny subjects of justice, racial equality and war. The setting might be period but, as recent news stories show, the fight for democracy is as fierce as ever, and Sorkin uses his entire arsenal of staunchly liberal ideology, theatrical dialogue and hard-hitting monologues to deliver his message. 

Cutting back and forth between the events of the ’68 convention and the subsequent trial the following year, we meet a rag-tag band of eight political activists: they include the media-savvy Yippies co-founders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the straight-laced Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Black Panther leader Bobby Searle (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and peace activist and founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trail of the Chicago 7All are on trial on a jumped-up conspiracy charge to incite riots the previous year. It’s inferred that their indictment is a retaliation from the recently-elected Nixon administration for the anti-war movement. We quickly realise that, whilst all are bedfellows of the radical left, the seven that go to trial (Bobby Searle’s case was dropped) have very different means to achieve their goals. 

Whilst Sorkin dextrously shifts across the timelines, the meat of the action is in the courtroom, where the case is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, on tremendous form and, as the film points out, bearing no relation to Abbie). He couldn’t be more of a contrast to the defendants’ shaggy-dog appearances, whom he barely masks his disdain for, including their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). The courtroom drama is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK, and the political tumult of the 1960s, but thankfully free from the typical 60s counterculture cliches (although there’s still plenty of corduroy and questionable hair). 

Sorkin has long demonstrated his ability to translate political theory into thrilling drama (just look at The West Wing), but here he elevates his game to new heights. History has proven that the case of the Chicago 7 was little more than a show trial, enacted by the establishment to suppress the freedoms of the left. A disgraceful moment where law and justice were abandoned. Sorkin shows the media frenzy for what it was – a political assassination attempt, and a raw, unflinching abandonment of the core principles of democracy. 

The script, the performances and the action brim with rage. But there’s also humour at just how ridiculous these events were – almost beyond satire (although Baron-Cohen’s Hoffman does a good job at injecting a lot of laughs). 

Sorkin shows us that democratic freedom is a fragile thing, and at the heart of it is the ability to speak freely without fear of retribution from the ruling establishment. This year the Black Lives Matter movement showed that protest is all too often met with brute force retaliation or, more menacingly, a complete abandonment of justice. 60 years on, liberty is still hard won by heroes like those on trial in 1968 in Chicago. Their courage to do what is right provides a glimmer of hope for today. However small it may be, Sorkin has made it shine extraordinarily bright. 

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