‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a thought-provoking good time

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Dreamworks Pictures

The whole world is watching.
This sentiment is echoed throughout “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin’s latest directorial effort. He is assisted by an all-star cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, and more. The film was released directly to Netflix on October 16, 2020.
The film chronicles the titular trial in which Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Mostly taking place inside of the courtroom, it seems on paper that “Chicago 7” would quickly lose the attention of the viewer. However, a combination of sharp direction, masterful writing, and strong performances keep the film from becoming stale.
Although the film is about a trial, Sorkin’s direction strives to make the audience forget that. The film begins with the trial, and Sorkin elects not to show the viewer what actually occurred to put the Seven under public scrutiny.
This tactic gives the film every excuse to leave the courtroom in the latter half of the film in order to unravel the events of the Convention to the audience. In fact, many of the film’s climactic moments occur outside of the courtroom as we are given further insight into what occurred in Chicago.
These revelations from the past are often interwoven with characters recounting what occurred in the present, cranking the tension up further. Sorkin builds suspense, making us almost beg just to see what happens, hoping we gain some type of release.
Often, when the release finally comes, the true events are shocking, and recontextualize how the audience views each of the players in this tale.
Sorkin makes the viewer a member of the jury, and determining the innocence or guilt of the Seven is part of the fun of the film.
However, viewers who have seen any of Sorkin’s other work will know that his screenplays are the main draw of his films, and “Chicago 7” is no exception.
The film moves at an almost rhythmic pace, with characters interjecting one-liners left and right. The audience finds it easy to relate to each of the characters because they talk like real humans.
This is, of course, assisted by the performances. Cohen’s portrayal of Hoffman doesn’t censor himself for the court, frequently sharing his opinion on the proceedings, and drawing many laughs in the process.
At the same time, Cohen brings a distinctly human tint to the character. Although he is a joker, he is clearly very committed to his cause, choosing the right moments to be serious.
The audience can sense as the plot progresses that he is more anxious of going to prison than he lets on, which Cohen conveys to the audience through small mannerisms such as the way he blinks or his posture.
Rylance also gives a strong performance as William Kunstler, the defense attorney for the group. Serving as a sort of father figure, Rylance pivots from composure to moments of frustration brilliantly.
Although the entire cast is on their A-game, the heart of the film is Abdul-Mateen’s portrayal of Bobby Seale. He fills every scene with a fiery passion, and it often feels as though Abdul-Mateen is fighting for his own life right before our very eyes.
He snatches the audience’s attention and places it squarely on himself, refusing to let us work away. His tireless clinging to hope is a beacon of hope, and I found it impossible not to cheer for him throughout the film.
Seale’s plight brings recent events to mind, and Sorkin recognizes this, working tirelessly to draw ties from the America of 1968 to America now.
Whether it is the imagery of cops and rioters clashing, or a young black man shot dead, you get the feeling that this America is not too far from our own. The film is a frequently chilling reminder of the lack of progress made, and Sorkin wants us to sit with that feeling.
He wants us to feel sick, and he wants us to doubt prior conceptions of our country that we may have had. There are problems in this country that have existed for ages, and Sorkin is willing to get dirty to expose them.
In the process, he’s crafted a film that is enjoyable on multiple levels. We can view “Chicago 7” as a courtroom drama, follow all of its ups and downs, be impressed by the performances, and be entertained.
However, we can also ponder the questions it poses about our society. Can we make progress? What steps do we need to take next?
Sorkin provides no easy answers. Ultimately, one thing is for sure: he hopes the whole world is watching, and they should be.