The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020, Netflix)
Dir: Aaron Sorkin
Who are the Chicago 7?
They are co-defendants, though there are actually 8 of them at the defence table initially, as Black Panther Bobby Seale played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is charged alongside the others but notably isn’t represented by the same lawyer (Mark Rylance). They’re all activists from a handful of organisations, played by an A-list ensemble including Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jeremy Strong.
What are they on trial for?
Each group wanted to organise a demonstration outside a Democratic Convention in Chicago, protesting the ongoing war in Vietnam. Eventually, all their groups essentially ended up merging into one crowd of protesters, who violently clashed with police. They’re then charged with conspiracy under a controversial law that hadn’t been used before.
When did this all happen?
Pivotally, the riot was in 1968, before the election of Richard Nixon, but the case isn’t brought against the defendants until 1970, and it took months to hear in court. The era is key to so much, it’s a few years after Kennedy’s assassination, in the midst of the Vietnam war with political tensions and civil rights and racial issues abounding. Though the Black Panther Party is not at the forefront of the case, co-founder Bobby Seale is one of the defendants, and Fred Hampton (also the subject of an Oscar-nominated film this year with Daniel Kaluuya playing him in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’) is also featured at the end of his life.
Why is it so interesting?
There are interesting people on all sides of the case, expertly written and exquisitely played by each actor. The defendants are a mixed bunch, with Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman standing out in particular. Even one character, Jerry Rubin, who for a while I thought was just a stoned idiot, then steps up in a moment of bravery and kindness that shifted my view of the character completely. The prosecution is lead by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose qualms and reluctance are clear. Judge Hoffman played by Frank Langella is incompetent or biased, maybe both, it’s hard to be sure. Then there’s a surprise appearance from Michael Keaton as someone who only died last week, one of the last figures in the film to pass away. There’s no doubt a lot of Sorkin polish to all of these characters, but maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much, I like how Sorkin writes and develops his characters. It’s full of snappy repartee and people who are thinking on many levels at once, bewilderingly smart at times, which works beautifully in a legal setting and holds my attention, I like working to keep up, teetering on the edge of confusion. Remember, this is the writer of ‘A Few Good Men’, so perspective-altering revelations and courtroom outbursts, that’s pure Sorkin gold.
How does the film make changes to what really happened?
That’s a good question. Court cases are (as I understand it) a matter of public record, so Sorkin could refer to that for accuracy, as well as the interviews, and books written by the defendants and others in the intervening years. However, it does seem like a bit has been changed for cinematic spectacle too, most notably the final scene, which felt a little ‘too good to be true’ when I watched it, and from what I’ve read it was, but I can’t hold that against the film, it’s written to be entertaining and it’s certainly that. To balance that out, there are scenes that edit in snippets of actual footage, which add extra gravitas and a re-grounding sense of verisimilitude.
Where is this available to watch?
Sorkin was determined the film should be released before the election, but with all theatres closed due to the pandemic, Paramount sold it to Netflix so it could be distributed quickly on their wide-reaching streaming service. I’m sure Netflix has been very happy with their acquisition as it’s been the best year yet for them with Award nominations, this being one of their most prolific nominees. It’s got a marquee writer/director with Sorkin, and the superb ensemble of A-list stars including Cohen who’s been enjoying buzz for his other, completely different, Oscar-nominated film. I don’t think this is the best film of the year, though I’m still working my way through the contenders, yet despite the serious themes and weighty consequences, it’s the most surprisingly enjoyable.
While it didn’t win any of the 3 BAFTAs it was nominated for, Editing, Original Screenplay, or Best Film, I wouldn’t rule out a win at the Academy Awards, especially for Sorkin’s writing. It’s also nominated for ‘Best Picture’, ‘Supporting Actor’ for Sacha Baron Cohen, ‘Cinematography’, ‘Editing’, and an excellent ‘Original Song’ by Celeste which is nicely teased in the opening of the film not just saved for the end credits. There’s a slim outside chance that preferential voting for the ‘Best Picture’ race could cause a surprise win and this has been touted as one to watch, it’s unlikely but don’t rule it out completely quite yet!