The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the latest movie from lauded TV showrunner Aaron Sorkin, whose previous film (and directorial debut), Molly’s Game, got something of a second wind on Netflix. That film was about someone running a poker game for rich people. Sorkin’s new movie picks far more sympathetic subjects: a group of counterculture figures and academics who protested the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and were brought up on charges leading to a landmark court case that gripped the nation.
The protest descended into a riot – instigated by the Chicago police, as it was later recognized. In 1969, with Nixon entering the White House, attorney general John N Mitchell (played here by John Doman) pursues a federal case against the group for conspiracy to incite a riot, among other charges.
Essentially, it’s Nixon’s government versus the anti-war protestors. Those on trial included Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was baselessly drawn into the case before the charges against him were dropped.
The movie focuses on key members of the Chicago Seven: student body leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Youth International Party leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), as well as defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).
What threatens to be a two-hour-plus courtroom drama of talking heads is broken up by recollections of the protest itself – along with a slight mystery element of what exactly led to the police violently attacking the protestors. It’s a compelling mix, elevated by an amazing ensemble cast.
Now and then
Sorkin successfully – but not subtly – draws parallels between the trial’s events and the present. That’s particularly apparent in how the truth is selected by the laughably unreasonable Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who swaps out sympathetic members of the jury on a whim and curates the facts of the case to shape a verdict.
It’s effective to watch because it plays to Sorkin’s strengths – especially with familiar territory. The courtroom is the perfect setting for his brand of verbal sparring, which he first demonstrated in his play (and more famous film adaptation) A Few Good Men. And like court cases, The Chicago Seven explores what it’s like not to have a definitive series of events: like with his previous biographical screenplays for The Social Network, Steve Jobs and Molly’s Game, the viewer only sees a version of the truth – there is a core story and themes that feel like they bend around real-life events. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s how it felt to watch those other movies, too.
The film zeroes in on the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, and what each represented in the fabric of the anti-Vietnam movement at the time. They begin a mile apart on how to behave during the case, but slowly begin to recognize each other’s point of view.
Likewise, while Bobby Seale’s story is not quite the focus of the film, Sorkin draws enough attention to his appalling treatment during the case for it to feel resonant – and Abdul-Mateen’s performance is a highlight, despite him not really featuring in the final third of the film.
I’ll be honest: living in the UK, and being born in the late ’80s, I had no real sense of the Chicago Seven before I started reading about this movie. Sorkin provides a lot of historical context for the trial, though, and what it represented as a moment in one of the most volatile periods of American history – you don’t need to do further reading to get what’s going on.
While the political atmosphere of the time weighs heavily on the film, it’s still a very entertaining courtroom drama, helped by amusing turns from Succession’s Jeremy Strong as Hoffman’s fellow ‘Yippie’ Jerry Rubin, as well as Sacha Baron Cohen reinventing himself in another welcome dramatic role. You get two brief, fantastic scenes of Michael Keaton, too. But Eddie Redmayne is a surprising frontrunner in a very strong ensemble – the film portrays Hayden as idealistic and benevolent, but just arrogant enough to get in his own way.
That said, compared to the other characters, who are dressed with period-accurate hair and clothing, Redmayne’s styling accidentally makes it look like he just walked off the set of the latest Fantastic Beasts movie.
Why you should stream this movie
A vein of liberal boomer optimism runs through a number of Sorkin’s films and TV shows. Sometimes that makes his work energizing and uplifting to watch. Other times, it comes across as out-of-touch, schmaltzy or patronizing.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 falls into the former camp – it successfully illustrates that this case was a politically-motivated injustice, one that seems transparently fraught in retrospect. It bodes well for Sorkin’s future directorial efforts, and it’s one of the year’s best films.
Netflix bought The Trial of the Chicago 7 from Paramount Pictures, and ran a limited theatrical release before dropping it straight onto the streaming service. I’m grateful, honestly: this is totally the kind of film I’d pay to see in my local boutique-y cinema. But that theater is not open right now, and probably won’t be again for months. That makes this kind of movie feel like a real treat.
I’ll take anything Netflix pays for right now – and this was a good bet by the streaming service.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming now on Netflix worldwide.
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