It’s impossible to watch the terrors of this movie unfold and not see the shockingly accurate parallel to the America we’re all currently living in.
I have always loved Aaron Sorkin’s work, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is another example of why. He was able to show what a farce the United States’ legal system can be, but also how the appeals process can allow for true justice to be found. The latter can only be true as long as the justice system of the United States remains loyal to the laws that govern our country, rather than the political ideals of a pair of warring parties.
But that’s all the message of the movie, we should probably talk about the text and exactly what we’re watching unfold.
For those that might not know, The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story of the trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale for conspiring and inciting riots in addition to a few other charges related to protesting the Vietnam War and other countercultural protests in Chicago in 1968.
The trial began in September of 1969, and took place over many months, culminating in the conviction of 5 of the 7 defendants (Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden) which was later overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in addition to many of the contempt charges brought against each of the defendants throughout the course of the trial.
For those keeping count at home, you are correct in thinking it’s weird I just gave you eight names at the beginning of that paragraph when it’s called The Trial of the Chicago 7. If you don’t know how that works, check out the movie.
Okay, now on to The Trial of the Chicago 7 itself…
While I certainly agree with many criticisms of Aaron Sorkin’s work over the years, especially in regards to his treatment of female characters and ignorance to racism in Hollywood (here’s just one example of such ignorance from The Root) I also have always admired his craft. The way he writes and uses cadence in his writing has always allowed the screenplays and scripts he pens to jump off the page onto the screen in emotionally moving ways. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was another one of those scripts for me.
I, personally, loved his adherence to the truth of what happened in that courtroom, for the most part anyway. If you’re interested in the fact and fiction of it all, Slate has a pretty detailed character breakdown including which details were embellished and which were dead on. After reading through it myself, it certainly seems like Sorkin got more right than he did wrong.
There’s a fine line between accurately portraying the events that unfolded and making it all work in a movie’s narrative form. Certain liberties are taken with timelines and such, but the majority of what you see on screen in The Trial of the Chicago 7 is pretty damn close to the truth, especially thanks to court records and transcripts.
As only his second directing gig, I have to say I’m growing more and more impressed with Aaron Sorkin’s style, especially when you pair it with his already infamous writing. Politics has been his artistic playground for many years, from A Few Good Men to The West Wing and back again, so the content of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is familiar territory for him.
Less familiar is crafting the visual style and language of the film, which worked for me from beginning to end. Whether he is weaving together shots from the days of the protest with the trial itself, or settling in for long scenes of dialogue with our protagonists, there was never a point where the camera, setting, or editing drew me out of the story, and I think that’s a decent place to start when one’s trying to build a directing filmography.
Craft aside, the real magic of this movie is in letting the event play out on screen, and this is one hell of a story to get right.
From the judge’s treatment of Bobby Seale to his inability to keep his own bias from affecting the momentum of the case, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has one true evil at its core. That evil takes physical shape and form in Frank Langella’s portrayal of Judge Julius Jennings Hoffman. While many of the actors in this film put forth incredible work, I was most affected by the portrayal of the uncompromising evil that sat in the judge’s chair. I really hope that awards season recognizes Langella’s work alongside the incredible men playing the heroes of this film.
It’s impossible to watch this movie without some political ideation forming in your consciousness. I was especially disgusted by the opening scene of the trial, which takes somewhere around 10 minutes to watch unfold on screen. It’s a vivid representation of the need for a diverse and competent government. As the judge refuses to hear Bobby Seale’s plea to be represented by his own lawyer, we watch the judge repeatedly mis-name one of the defendants, make a clarification to separate himself from another, on top of his disregard for Bobby Seale’s right to his own representation. Or any representation for that matter.
All of this, all of it, paints a pretty disturbing picture of how the conservative movement of 1969 wished to deal with the ‘radical Left,’ as portrayed in this film. Downplaying their cause, highlighting their vigor and tenacity, and blaming them for everything that’s uncomfortable.
There is much to aspire to and learn from The Trial of the Chicago 7, but mostly I hope it inspires all of us to look back at the darkest moments in our nation’s history, particularly those you may not have spent much time in school learning about, and educate ourselves. Ignorance to history only makes it that much easier to repeat it.
I leave you with a quote from the film that has sat particularly hard in my heart since I heard it spoken aloud for the first time in my life, “Give me a moment, would you friend? I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” May we all have patience for conflicting ideas, but unflinching justice for the evils of this world.