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Chicago 7 Trial: Aaron Sorkin investigates the power of the protest in time


From left Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in the trial of Chicago 7 on Netflix.


The Chicago Trial 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin for Netflix, is a contemporary history lesson that resonates powerfully today. The focus is on the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. It examines how certain freedoms can never be taken for granted (especially not in 2020).

The film, which runs on October 16, brings together a top-class ensemble and tells the true story of a political process whose defendants, anti-war activists, faced the possibility of a 10-year prison sentence because of their ideas.

The Chicago 7 trial shows all of the sorkinisms associated with the creator of the west wing. There are fast-paced repetitions and long, brilliant monologues in which characters romanticize political ideals.

During a quick succession of Sorkinese sequences in which characters cannot stop talking while walking, the film introduces its main actors as it cuts archive footage. We see pictures of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam draft; Martin Luther King – his opposition to the war and his murder; Robert Kennedy’s assassination; Activist groups loudly speaking out against the war.


Sacha Baron Cohen, left, and Jeremy Strong.


“Martin (Luther King) is dead. Malcolm (X) is dead. Medgar (Evers) is dead. Bobby (Kennedy) is dead. Jesus is dead. They tried peacefully, we’ll try something else,” says Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the beginning of the film. In 1968 he went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest against the war.

Seale isn’t the only one going to Chicago on that note. So did Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), two student leaders for a democratic society. There’s also David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) from Mobilizing to Ending the War in Vietnam and the staunch nonconformists Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party (The Yippies). They all want to march and oppose the democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who is not an anti-war. But protests end in clashes with the police and the National Guard. The organizers are charged with conspiracy to cause a riot.

The film introduces viewers to each of these real-life people, whose names appear on the screen when the characters first appear. The film contrasts the 1969 trial, when Richard Nixon was president, with the events of the summer of 1968 that led to the trial.

The recent protests against Black Lives Matter and the demand for racial and social justice make this film a must-see attraction. The Chicago 7 trial is timely due to the era depicted, but it isn’t the only film to revisit that period in the US. Others include the documentary MLK / FBI; Regina King directed One Night in Miami; and Jude and the Black Messiah, who reports the 1969 police murder of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

A surprise in The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the performance of Borat comedian Cohen. He’s clearly having fun, wearing the unruly hair and unkempt clothes of a hippie who doesn’t respect authority but doesn’t take himself too seriously. Cohen plays the juicy role with the right amount of rakishness – the British actor has some of the best lines in the film and delivers them with the colorful New England accent his character had in real life.

Lines like: “I’ve never been in court because of my thoughts” or “The institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that are currently populated by some terrible people.” But my favorite Cohen / Hoffman moment comes when the judge (played by Frank Langella, who looks like he’s completely comfortable on an episode of The Good Fight) asks him if he was talking about “contempt for judgment” is familiar. To which Cohen’s character replies, “It’s practically a religion to me, sir.”


Director Aaron Sorkin on the set of The Trial of the Chicago Jan.


In an ensemble populated by bigger names like Michael Keaton and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abdul-Mateen and Oscar winner Redmayne are other outstanding artists. He’s playing the polished student leader Hayden with a magnetism I didn’t know he had. Abdul-Mateen, fresh from his Emmy win in Watchmen, is at the center of a particularly nasty sequence in which his character is gagged and viciously abused. The Chicago 7 trial touches upon the fact that Abdul-Mateen’s character was the only black on trial and reveals how differently he was treated.

My only objection is the lack of essential female characters. This is not uncommon for Sorkin, who almost makes it look like only men fought for civil rights in the 1960s. I’m sure Sorkin could have found a good CJ Cregg character for this story – the talented West Wing press secretary became Chief of Staff (played by Allison Janney).

“I want to bring manners back. How about that? The America I grew up in,” said US Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), who served under Nixon, at the beginning of the Chicago 7 trial. Sorkin makes a point of this that some things haven’t changed all that much since 1969.

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