PLOT: Following the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Chicago 7 – Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), as well as Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are put on trial for inciting the riots.
REVIEW: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is one of those projects that have been kicking around Hollywood for years and years, with Steven Spielberg initially commissioning the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin back in 2007. It’s almost happened a few times in the years since, with directors such as Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller flirting with the project. In the end, it took Sorkin himself to get the film made, and it comes along at an opportune moment with this being an election year in the U.S.
Whichever way you lean, Sorkin’s film is absorbing stuff, with the expected sparkling dialogue, although this is a leaner, more disciplined film than his first feature as a director, MOLLY’S GAME. It helps that he’s telling a focused story here, with only a quick prologue introducing the characters taking place outside of the trial, with flashbacks to the riots (through testimony) peppered throughout.
The powerhouse cast is impeccably assembled, led by Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. A strong dramatic follow-up to his underrated Netflix mini-series, “The Spy”, Cohen once again proves himself a more than capable dramatic actor. He gives Hoffman the expected bluster, but also an undercurrent of fragility made all the more bittersweet if you’re aware of his ultimate fate. Likewise, as his partner in protest and best friend, Jerry Rubin, Jeremy Strong is terrific and serves as a scene-stealer throughout, with the two having great chemistry. Strong gives Rubin a sense of pathos as well, with a nice side plot about how he was betrayed by an undercover protestor (Caitlin FitzGerald) who he thought liked him but was only trying to infiltrate the movement.
Probably the weakest element of THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is that so much of the focus is on Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, who comes off as a bit of a square next to the colorful Rubin and Hoffman. The charisma of the real-life Hayden doesn’t quite come across here, and Sorkin uses him as something of an antagonist to the more spitfire Hoffman. Otherwise, the supporting cast is a murderer’s row of character actors, with Mark Rylance playing against type as the disheveled but brilliant defense attorney William Kunstler, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the lead prosecutor, the driven but ultimately sympathetic Robert Shultz.
Without a doubt, the real villain here is shown to be trial judge Julius Hoffman, who’s played by Frank Langella as not only incompetent but perhaps even senile. Michael Keaton has two great scenes as former attorney general Ramsay Clark, whose ultimately shown to be one of the good guys, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for a sympathetic Bobby Seale, whose treatment by Judge Hoffman was scandalous even in 1969. Kelvin Harrison Jr. puts in an appearance as Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton, with the man himself getting his own biopic early next year in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH.
My only real issue with Sorkin’s style here is he maybe overdoes his reliance on Daniel Pemberton’s score, which is very much in the rousing John Williams style, and maybe could have been pulled back a little. Otherwise, this is a beautifully made film that was actually a Paramount Pictures production, with them selling it to Netflix due to the pandemic. Having watched it, one can see why Sorkin and the filmmakers were so keen to get it out there this year, as it shines a light on a provocative, relevant story that should be remembered this year more than any.