The Trial of the Chicago 7 falls into the lineage of films like The Big Short and BlackKklansman: it’s a movie that dramatizes a real-life event in the form of a narrative film that also includes elements of documentary. The other thing all of these movies have in common? They artfully take one dramatic, historically specific event and remind us that the same thing is happening right here, right now.
In 1968, various leftist groups gathered in Chicago to protest at the site of the Democratic National Convention. Violence between protestors and police broke out, and the next year several protest leaders went to trial for their part in the conflict. The Trial of the Chicago 7 brings viewers through the trial and reveals what exactly happened that night, interspersed with the court proceedings, as the film progresses.
The trial is presided by the insufferable Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who pushes both prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a conservative family man, and liberal defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) to their wits’ end. The courtroom is rife with injustice, despite the supposed checks and balances that exist within the judicial system.
Conflict even breaks out even among the group of defendants, portrayed by such actors as Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, John Carroll Lynch, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. It turns out that the young, serious democrats, the Black Panthers, and the hippies all have serious ideological issues with one another – but, in the eyes of the U.S. government, they are all one homogenous enemy.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is fast-paced, throwing a high volume of information at viewers through dialogue, flashbacks, and real film clips from the ’60s. It would be easy to miss important details if it weren’t for the fantastic performances by every member of this powerful ensemble, as well as excellent visual and auditory pacing. Whether or not viewers follow every judicial or historical tidbit, writer/director Aaron Sorkin has made it impossible for us to lose sight of the issues at the heart of this story.
To be clear, I would give The Trial of the Chicago 7 high praise for its entertainment value alone. Characters are fully drawn, relatable, and entertaining; conflict is intense and its resolution is a perfect fit for the story; jumps back and forth in time add delicious mystery and dramatic irony. But its relevance to our present moment is what takes it to the next level.
The dynamic between Judge Hoffman and everyone else in the court, especially Black Panther Bobby Seale, offers an infuriating portrayal of how power can be abused even in institutions that are designed to be impartial. Viewers can make easy and accurate connections between Hoffman’s dictator-esque ruling style and that of old, white men in positions of power all over the present United States government and judicial system.
Even more topical is the question of whether violence can or must be part of a revolution. Protests against institutional racism and violent policing all over the U.S. in 2020 not only echo the clashes between progressives and “pigs” in the ’60s, they also sparked debate about the same topics that the defendants argue in this film: can change be achieved through peaceful protest? How does the violence perpetrated by provoked protesters compare to the violence perpetrated by police and others in power against marginalized people on a regular basis?
This film doesn’t answer those political questions. Rather, it places them in our hands and demands that we have the courage to ask them for ourselves.
The Bottom Line
The Trial of the Chicago 7 entertains and challenges, stimulating both the heart and the mind. Whether your take-away is a powerful storytelling experience or a new lens through which to view present-day America, you’ll most certainly gain something from watching.