“That’s right, we’re not goin’ to jail because of what we did, we’re goin’ to jail because of who we are!”
Betrayal, brutality, and bumbling take center stage as filmmakers present a well known juried court case that’s just as relevant now as it was then. Anti-Vietnam War activists at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois are charged with inciting to riot as Richard Nixon’s administration takes over when Lyndon Johnson’s administration leaves. Aaron Sorkin writes and directs this historic legal drama available in select theaters and on the Netflix streaming service.
In this trial, presided by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), that lasted from 1969 and 1970, federal prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) were prosecutors against eight initial defendants who were largely represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
Many defendants were associated with groups:
- Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) were leaders of the Youth International Party (a.k.a. Yippies)
- Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was National Chairman of the Black Panther Party. Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), leader of the Illinois Black Panthers, supported Seale during the trial.
- David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was leader of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (The Mobe)
- Tom Hayden (Eddie Raymore) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) were leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
- Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) were also tried.
Strong and Cohen, who was also an associate producer, really impress as they get to spend more time together as a duo compared to the other characters…they’re also the most outspoken characters, which adds some comic relief (Seth Rogen was originally planned instead of Strong). Raymore and Sharp make a good pair too as their relationship, especially near the end during a key flashback sequence.
Lynch’s portrayal provides a “voice of reason” amid the heated conflicts shown in the impactful flashback sequences. Sorkin even inserts bits of these sequences to help build-up to the climax. Editor Alan Baumgarten (American Hustle) gets considerable credit along with the audio department and extras as familiar crowd chants like “The whole world is watching” and riot scenes are portrayed in very memorable ways.
The administration transition from Johnson’s to Nixon’s plays a key role here in the power struggles behind-the-scenes as attorney general John N. Mitchell (John Doman who replaced William Hurt) takes over for Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton)
Other notable characters include Daphne O’Connor (Caitilin FitzGerald), Officer Stan Wojohowski (Max Adler), Bernardine (Alice Kremelberg), Howard Ackerman (Damian Young), and Allen Ginsberg (Alan Metoskie).
Surprise infiltrations into organizations, political bias, and legal maneuvering all factor into the plot, which climaxes in an impactful revelation. All this action involves an immense cast, which filmmakers assemble well, but are understandably unable to adequately set up some of the relationships among them and each character’s background due to the limited time in this film medium.
Some events are rearranged and filmmakers take some creative licenses with various dramatizations. Audiences are often challenged with sifting through multiple events, character motivations, and various legal actions. The flash-forward sequences are an effective touch on the already strong plot and character development. These sequences go beyond just releasing some tension with comic relief but add to the important discussions of the conflict, issues, and resolutions presented.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) and production designer Shane Valentino (Nocturnal Animals) capture these times very well. Daniel Pemberton’s musical score also impresses along with the song “Hear My Voice” by Celeste.
This historical legal drama has a two hour and 9 minute running time and comes highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars). Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images, and drug use. The Trial of the Chicago 7 demonstrates how our United States has great division with faults on both sides, but can still work for a solution where all people can coexist respectively, peacefully, and, most importantly, fairly.