At the height of anti-war sentiments, civil rights movements and counterculture, director and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s new film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” brings to life one of the most notable events in U.S. history. Originally released in select theatres Sept. 25, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was made widely available on Netflix Oct. 16.
Sorkin, best known for writing shows “The West Wing” and “Newsroom,” as well as movies including “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” creates a suspenseful courtroom drama based on events that occurred more than 50 years ago. Yet, as the film illustrates the events that unfolded at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, it couldn’t feel more timely.
The film follows the story of seven activists representing various organizations — including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), and the Youth International Party (Yippies) — who travel to Chicago to advocate for peace, protest the Vietnam War and stand up for civil rights at the DNC.
The movie bounces back and forth from trial proceedings to recounting what went on at the demonstrations in Grant Park on the weekend of the DNC. Peaceful protests were met with tear gas and brutal beatings from thousands of police officers and members of the Illinois National Guard. Dozens of injuries and arrests are depicted in a combination of dramatizations and real footage from 1968.
The defendants — Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — are charged with conspiracy and inciting riots, and are forced to face a grueling, months-long trial in front of an outwardly biased judge.
The trial begins with eight defendants, but during the proceedings, Seale is granted mistrial — though not without subjection to blatant, cruel and racist treatment by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). The worst comes when Seale is gagged and placed in shackles for being disruptive in court — a scene that is at first shocking and then eerily familiar. Abdul-Mateen’s dramatic rendering of the Black Panther Party chairman echoes the events of the present day, further emphasizing the story’s lasting relevance.
Cohen and Strong brilliantly portray the roles of Yippies Hoffman and Rubin that approach the trials with tongue-in-cheek comments and bold demonstrations, bringing a touch of silliness to overall serious themes. Oppositely, Hayden and Davis are righteous leaders of SDS working to promote political activism in college students. Both Redmayne and Sharp are exceptional fits for the roles of the quiet, yet bold, young activists.
The film’s parallels to modern United States coupled with outstanding performances across the board by the cast make for a galvanizing look at a piece of U.S. and Chicago history.
The story depicted in this movie is significant now more than ever, especially with this year’s growing demonstrations against police brutality, support for Black lives and political tensions surrounding the upcoming election. Watching hundreds of people gather to protest while law enforcement hit them with bats and throws canisters of tear gas into the crowds in the film bears a striking resemblance to demonstrations that arose all over the country this year.
A well-balanced combination of witty humor and scrutiny, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is an honest and, at times, disturbing retelling of some of the most influential events in Chicago’s history. History buff or not, this movie is worth the watch.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” rated R, is now available on Netflix.