Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an Aaron Sorkin movie for the rest of us

Eddie Redmayne as Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden.

I’ve never felt any particular affinity for Aaron Sorkin. I respect his talents, to be sure — he’s better at screenwriting than I’ll likely ever be. But even his most ardent fans probably realize that for all his skill, his projects often come across like stageplays, with unnaturally profound and incisive dialogue set against mostly static backdrops. His West Wing reunion is literally a filmed stage production.

The Trial of Chicago 7 — both written and directed by Sorkin — works in no small part because its story demands cutting to realistic action. The movie is set in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, during which police inflicted indefensible brutality on anti-war protesters. Under the Nixon administration’s incoming Attorney General, John Mitchell (played by John Doman), the U.S. government pursues a case against eight activist leaders it accuses of inciting the riots.

“Eight,” you might be asking? For a time, yes. The eighth defendant is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has nothing to do with the protests yet ultimately ends up bound and gagged in the courtroom before his case is rightly declared a mistrial, leaving the other defendants to the whims of the film’s true villain, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). I’m not spoiling anything here — that’s what really happened.

Though much of the movie is spent in court, Sorkin and editor Alan Baumgarten wisely spend equal amounts of time cutting back to the protests or to other contemporaneous events, which provides a healthy amount of not just action but context. We see for example Chicago 7 members Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) arguing over their divergent protest philosophies, or Chicago PD officers pulling off their badges and nametags before bludgeoning college kids in the street.

Sorkin in fact gives us several different axis points to focus on, perhaps the most important being the conflict with Judge Hoffman. As in real life, Hoffman is prejudiced against both the 7 and their attorneys, leading to a brazenly unconstitutional trial and dozens of unwarranted contempt charges. By the latter half of the movie, just seeing him onscreen is liable to raise your blood pressure.

The film can’t unfortunately be treated as a literal retelling of history, since it omits or alters significant facts. It seems to portray William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) as the 7’s only attorneys, for instance, when in reality they had much larger team. Bobby Seale was also in Chicago for two days, not four hours, though that’s still much shorter than other defendants.

Kunstler (Rylance) talks with Seale (Abdul-Mateen II).

These gaps bother me more than they probably will some other critics. I’m of the view that for many people, this will be their first encounter with the trial, and distorting facts can propagate falsehoods in a world where the truth is already under constant attack. There’s also a certain irony to this, since the movie’s protagonists are constantly battling lies and misconceptions.

As raw cinema, however, the movie is extremely well-structured, engaging, and uplifting, which is something we could use in the midst of a pandemic and one of the most fractious moments in recent American history. Indeed Sorkin has said the movie was meant to draw parallels with current events, but ironically ones preceding both the pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter — the pair of which have only made the film more relevant than ever.

It’s worth adding that the film’s all-star cast is a tour-de-force, with Cohen, Langella, and Rylance in particular putting in Oscar-worthy performances. Redmayne might also see a nomination, but if I’m honest, I was more focused on how successfully he was pulling off an American accent than his emotive abilities.

The movie wraps up with a cliched (and literal) moment of people standing up for their principles, but in balance it feels well-earned. It’s a logical outcome of the plot and characters, and perhaps most importantly, serves as a reminder of the tragic war the Chicago 7 were protesting. It’s clear Sorkin felt a need to ground his drama, which — historical inaccuracies notwithstanding — helps both his filmmaking and the world at large.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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