‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Turns Famous Activist Trial Into a Critique of Systemic Abuses

Courtrooms and trials provide the perfect setting for interests to clash. This is why the legal thriller is practically its own genre. Aaron Sorkin combines the recognizable elements of a courtroom drama with political history in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Sorkin rarely leaves the courtroom as he dramatizes the famous 1969 trial of several iconic activists for their alleged role in inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Famous for his rapid prose, Sorkin never digs too deep, but gets some strong ideas across with a brisk pace.

Originally they were eight defendants, and Sorkin opens the movie just as they’re heading for trial. They include Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the more psychedelic-inclined heads of the Youth International Party, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther disconnected from the others but tossed in conveniently by the authorities. Tapped by the government to lead the prosecution are Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie). For the defense there’s William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). What Kunstler and Weinglass must do is prove their defendants did not go to Chicago with the intention of sparking violence in the streets, but it soon becomes obvious it’s essentially a rigged trial. Even the judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), shows off his bias and dismisses constitutional rights at will. 

This is a much more polished directing effort from Sorkin, who made his directorial debut with 2017’s rather clunky “Molly’s Game.” In a sense he has returned to a space where he feels comfortable. One of his best-known works as a screenwriter remains “A Few Good Men,” the military courtroom opus where he handed Jack Nicholson that immortal line, “You can’t handle the truth!” Politics has always been a favorite playing ground for him with movies like “The American President” and his TV show “The West Wing.” With “The Trial of the Chicago 7” Sorkin enters more radical territory, attempting to profile counterculture figures he places inside a courtroom story. It’s not really a film about the ‘60s in a general sense, because Sorkin never goes too deep into the political debates or even philosophies of the players involved. All you need to know is that the defendants did not agree with the U.S. war in Vietnam. It’s more of a universal tale of rabble rousers versus the powers that be, condensed into a trial. 

The approach is understandable because Sorkin is juggling so many lives, he doesn’t want to just focus on Hayden or Hoffman, who are nonetheless the two most prominent characters. They represent the differing personalities of the anti-war movement. Hoffman is a drug-taking libertine who hopes the “revolution” will change the culture of the nation, Hayden’s radicalism  aims at political change by engaging with the system, hopefully inspiring young radicals to later run for office (as Hayden himself would eventually do). Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne perfectly capture Sorkin’s view of these two figures. Cohen plays Hoffman like a cheerfully intelligent but mischievous semi-anarchist, smirking at power and hating the war for what it means in general. Redmayne’s Hayden is a bit harder to read. It seems Sorkin wants to cast him as the serious, collegial revolutionary, who scoffs at Hoffman’s LSD persona, bemoaning that in 50 years it is Hoffman people will associate with the protest movement. Hayden even inspires the subtle scorn of his peers for being the only one to stand for Judge Hoffman, after the thug of a judge has Bobby Seale bound and gagged in court for continuously demanding to represent himself. 

But already packing the courtroom drama into two hours, Sorkin has no time to truly explore these fascinating men. Little to nothing of Hoffman or Hayden’s backgrounds or thought processes is explored. Everyone else in the defendants’ chairs is also left more as character symbols. Jeremy Strong is great fun as Jerry Rubin however, playing him in a zoned out state for most of the movie, capable of gracefully snatching an egg hurled at him by an angry demonstrator. And later Sorkin does give Hayden his due, with a potent scene showing the sweater-wearing intellectual erupt onstage in a blistering call to action.

With his skill for pacing, what Sorkin does deliver well is an engaging story about the perils of taking on state power. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” instantly gains urgent relevance from what has been a year of mass protests, when clashes in the streets raise questions about a state’s resort to violence. From the beginning the 1968 activists involved were against immense forces, even during the DNC when Chicago mayor Richard Daley turned the city into what Walter Cronkite calls a police state during opening news clips. But Sorkin’s dialogue finely captures what happens when conservative personalities clash with rebels. Richard Schultz is tasked by Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to railroad the activists and make an example of them, Judge Hoffman barely hides his contempt, which provokes Hoffman to clown around in court, using sharp logic to mock the proceedings. In essence the court system becomes a sham. The exchanges between judge and defendants, or a battle-ready Kunstler, who shows little political bias, but will defend his clients faithfully, are the film’s strongest moments. Though Sorkin does manage to convey some of the terror Daley’s police unleashed on the protesters, with close-ups showing just what happens when a police billy club smashes into someone’s face. The protest scenes have such energy and ferocity, we wish there was more. But the 1968 riots alone are another movie.

Sorkin has worked with some of the slickest Hollywood talents, and so his own movie never veers too far away from a few standard techniques. The ending rises to a romantic crescendo, even some of the prosecutors reveal they are not as hard-hearted as we would believe. The visual look is very clean and without much experimentation. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is an obviously liberal, but not radical, movie that provides an entertaining, well-acted overview of the event it covers. It reminds viewers every era has its rebellious voices sensing something is off in how the system is run.

The Trial of the Chicago 7” begins streaming Oct. 16 on Netflix.