‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is as timely as ever

Oct. 28, 2020, 7:59 p.m.

“Give me a moment, would you friend? I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” says Abbie Hoffman on the stand in the fittingly titled “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

While it may not be 1969 anymore, the issues at the core of this Netflix film couldn’t be more ever-present, retelling the true story of seven antiwar activists who faced trial for speaking their truth. Call it clumsy, schmaltzy or historically inaccurate, but “The Trial of the Chicago 7” makes for crowd-pleasing entertainment with Aaron Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue. 

And when I say snappy, I mean it. The film is a sharp succession of wry jokes, rapid repartee and powerfully impassioned speeches that elicit as much admiration as they would eye-rolling. In other words, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is nothing less than what we’ve come to expect from the writer-director of “The Social Network” and “The West Wing.” That being said, Sorkin’s penchant for poetic romanticization often softens the actual sparring: the blows of what was a brutal trial in American history. 

The first seven minutes of the movie play out like a groovy heist flick, a montage assembling the team. The eight unrelated radicals who would later turn future defendants prepare to protest the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Cut to the courtroom, and the camera pans over to Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden, antiwar pacifist David Dellinger, “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale now on trial. In essence, the film readies its audience for serious courtroom proceedings, an idea that is quickly unraveled by the trial’s sheer injustice. 

“We’re not going to jail because of what we did. We’re going to jail because of who we are,” says Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is the first to proclaim that the trial is political. Seemingly just another hopped-up hippie, Hoffman’s stoner self masks his truly scintillating wit and spunk. His earnest indignation often opposes the rather respectable Mr. Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), who would prefer to follow the rules so he can get back to the picket line.

“I don’t have time for cultural revolution. It distracts from actual revolution,” he says in response to Hoffman.

The issue on trial is whether the Chicago 7 conspired to incite violence at the convention’s protests. Of course, the accusations are false, but prosecutor Robin Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the truly contemptible Judge Julius Hoffman (who, for the record, is unrelated to Abbie) and the rest of the Nixon government will bear whatever costs they must to put these “radical leftists” in prison. This becomes especially clear when they decide to try Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as an eighth defendant despite his lawyer’s absence and his insistence that he’d never met the other seven until their indictment. 

As the defense tries to fine-tune their strategy, allowing for seamless flashbacks to the protests in between the proceedings, new questions emerge as to what the trial means in the context of the Chicago 7’s movement: what these men represent, what it means to do what is respectable and what is right. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” never provides clear answers to these questions, but it poses them so willingly, knowing that its timeliness is more than likely to compensate. After all, in a year like 2020, there’s something awfully familiar about its characters —  about their disgruntlement at the systems in place, the conflicting emotions that ebb and flow in uncertain times like these and as Hayden even admits, the contempt that institutions have for people like him, who are just as American as anyone else. 

In “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin strikes a solid balance between a larger-than-life case and its larger-than-life all-star cast, and for the most part, Sorkin does the story justice. While it may not be as neatly packaged as a viewer could hope and while it may sacrifice a punchy conclusion for a hallmark Hollywood ending, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is an undeniably engaging watch that’s straightforward in its messaging. As history unfolds, one thing is certain: the world is always watching. 

Contact Rathi Anandu at rathi29 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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