Netflix always ups their game as the year comes to an end and awards season begins. In 2018 they released Roma. In 2019 it was The Irishman. This week brings the first film in what’s sure to be a solid 2020 with the release of The Trial of the Chicago 7. Here’s everything you need to know about the period political drama.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells the story of the titular group of activists known as the ‘Chicago 7’. Their charges, which included conspiracy and inciting a riot, stemmed from the clashes at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The film brings a star-studded, ensemble cast featuring names like Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton, to name a few. Aaron Sorkin directs the movie from his own script.
Despite its period setting, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is very, very timely; and as a filmmaker, Aaron Sorkin is well aware of this. There are a number of moments where the parallels between 1968 and 2020 become strikingly clear. The images of protestors, clashing riots and police brutality fill news sources today as often as they did more than fifty years ago. The names may be different, but many of these ideas are still the same. Sorkin has long demonstrated a flair for the timely and relevant subject matter, and this story of revolution and revolt seems perfect for him to sink his teeth into.
Ultimately, Sorkin’s handling of the narrative manages to, at the same time, be a strength and a weakness in this formidable film. This is a message picture, and as mentioned above, it’s well aware of this. There are a number of moments throughout where the film aims to achieve a rousing, inspirational tone that doesn’t quite gel with the often heavy subject matter. It feels very “Hollywood” for lack of a better word. Has this worked in other films? Certainly. And in another day and time, this angle might have worked in The Trial of the Chicago 7. However, in 2020 there are moments that are so raw and close-to-home that this reviewer struggled with this.
At the same time, The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t seem completely sure what it wants to be. There are hints of character driven, ensemble drama, legal drama, period drama and issue-driven message picture all rolled up into one feature film. As such, this keeps the movie from fully realizing the possible potential.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 clocks in at a little over two hours. However, history shows that the actual trial lasted over 11 months. In fact, over 18 months passed between the convention to the verdict. This is a tremendous amount of ground for any script to cover, and the script does struggle with this. Certain characters fade a bit into the background and don’t get the love they deserve. This is particularly true of John Carroll Lynch’s portrayal of David Dellinger. Lynch’s mature and stoic take on Dellinger stands out against the younger radicals surrounding him. However, despite his beautiful performance, he doesn’t receive nearly enough screen time. Thus, the audience is left wanting more.
That being said, Sorkin brings together a tremendously talented cast and a host of strong performances. Eddie Redmayne paints a fascinating and complex picture of burgeoning political activist Tom Hayden. Jeremy Strong absolutely runs with the part of Jerry Rubin, landing as far away from Kendall Roy as he can get. Finally, Sacha Baron Cohen puts himself in awards contention with his take on Abbie Hoffman.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II absolutely shines as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. The heartbreaking injustice Seale suffered during the trial is at the heart of this story and desperately needs to be told. As a result, Abdul-Mateen doesn’t have a lot of screen time– Seale was very much isolated from the others– however, he still manages to capture Seale’s humanity and humor, but also his anger and betrayal at the institutionalized racism inherent in the U.S. justice system.
Sorkin injects a beautiful sense of humanity into this story which leads to many chill-inducing moments, particularly in the Chicago sequences. These events, as well as these men, have gone on to be defined through our vastly divided political perspectives. Sometimes they’re sainted, but just as often they’re vilified. However, in the fifty years since, it’s easy to loose sight of the people behind these events. In the hands of Redmayne, Strong, Abdul-Matteen II and the under-utilized Alex Sharp, The Trial of the Chicago 7 brings a new perspective to the 1968 riots. These were young men simply fighting for what they thought was right against an unpopular administration and a government wanting to silence them. Sounds familiar.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a name you’re going to be hearing about the deeper we go into awards season. As is often said, this isn’t a perfect movie. However, the film strikes a powerful note in our contemporary climate. It brings emotion and humanity to a moment which despite passing quickly into the rearview mirror of history, is still so relevant. The chanted refrain of “The Whole World is Watching” feels starkly true to what we’re seeing today. It goes without saying that this story brings political baggage, but if this doesn’t bother you, there is plenty here to enjoy.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 premieres on Netflix Friday, October 16th.