The Trial of the Chicago 7 review – timely courtroom drama

Aaron Sorkin’s electrifying dramatisation of the trial of a group of 60s radicals illuminates issues that still trouble America

The events explored in this electrifying courtroom drama – the trial of a high-profile group of defendants on charges relating to anti-Vietnam protests during the 1968 Democratic national convention – unfolded more than half a century ago. But there’s a stinging currency here that cuts through the wafting patchouli and tie dye and makes for a forcefully contemporary and relevant piece of film-making.

This is partly because of a particularly satisfying marriage between the subject matter and the showy talents of the film’s writer and director, Aaron Sorkin. Unapologetically partisan in his politics, Sorkin the writer is in his element dealing with material with a message and an articulate ensemble cast with which to deliver it. And as a director, he sheds the needy pyrotechnics that rather detracted from his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, leaning instead on the crisp editing skills of Alan Baumgarten and superb work across the board from his cast. Of the latter, Mark Rylance is on cracking, abrasive form as defence attorney William Kunstler and, playing Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen aces a rare dramatic role.

But mainly, the film feels timely because it is timely. It unfolds on the frontline of a culture war that rages still. For a country that places such value on freedom of speech, America had, and still has, a prickly relationship with dissent.

The trial, as Hoffman is at pains to point out, is politically motivated. It’s a flex on the part of attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman), partly intended to kick out the foundations of the countercultural movement by jailing its figureheads. And partly it’s Mitchell’s sniping retort to a perceived slight by his predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).

By lumping all the defendants together, the case reveals the schisms between them, tensions that Sorkin teases out with wit and relish. Clean-cut idealist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) has little time for the stoner stunts of Hoffman and Yippie co-defendant Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Radical pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is “literally a boy scout leader”. John Froines and Lee Weiner have no idea why they are being charged, but in the “Academy awards of protest, it’s an honour just to be nominated”.

But it’s the treatment of the eighth man on trial, Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), that gives the film its sobering gravity. Seale’s case is eventually declared a mistrial, but not before he is subjected to racism and humiliation at the behest of the judge. A harrowing scene in which Seale is shackled and gagged is both shocking and sickeningly familiar. This is a film that examines both the past and the present day; that plots a path on the common ground between them.

Watch the trailer for The Trial of the Chicago 7.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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