Aaron Sorkin’s snappy “The Trial of the Chicago 7” could be called “A Few Good Hippies,” and I don’t mean that as a criticism.
Sorkin takes the real-life trial of antiwar activists who were charged with conspiring to riot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Sorkin-izes it in a way that fans of "The Social Network" and "A Few Good Men" will recognize. The rapid-fire overlapping dialogue, the deft switching between different (often contradictory) perspectives on the same events, the juicy, stem-winding arguments about big ideas — it’s all there.
Sorkin originally wrote the screenplay 15 years ago, and Steven Spielberg was at one time interested in directing. But that project never went anywhere, and Sorkin eventually took the director’s chair as well for this all-star version, which will be released on Netflix on Friday.
The story of the Chicago 7 trial has been told before on film, and the subject matter must be irresistible because the cultural lines here are so stark. At the defense table are what one observer called “the Academy Awards of protests,” from the buttoned-down Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) to the showboating Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong).
The prosecutors (Joseph Gordon Levitt and J.C. Mackenzie), are prodded by Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) with throwing the book at the group, despite the fact that Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration concluded the Chicago police were responsible for the riot. We see from the outset that the trial is politically driven with two aims by Nixon’s men — to break the back of the antiwar movement and to discredit the Johnson administration.
Presiding over the trial is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose dottiness barely conceals his contempt for the protesters, especially his namesake Abbie Hoffman. He keeps his thumb firmly on the scale of the trial, and peppers the defendants and their lawyer, the rumpled but canny William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) with contempt citations. Hoffman and Rubin see the trial for the farce that it is, disrupting the proceedings with outbursts and pranks, like showing up for court wearing judges’ robes.
While the courtroom antics are fun and engrossing, what Sorkin finds that’s new about this version of the story is the underlying tensions between Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Hayden, founder of Students for a Democratic Society, still believes he can change the system from within. Hoffman scoffs at such idealism; the system is rotten, he contends, and the best thing to do is tear it down and start over, laughing all the way. It seems like Sorkin’s heart lies with Hayden’s way, but he gives both sides their day in court.
The arguments over the best way to make change is the heart of the film, and reflects one that we see splashed on our editorial pages every day in 2020 in arguments between progressives and moderates. That uncanny relevance pervades “Chicago 7,” even though Sorkin swears he hasn’t changed a word of the screenplay since he wrote it in the mid-‘00s.
It’s hard not to feel the chill of recognition when Mayor Daley’s blue-helmeted police remove their badges and nametags in preparation for clubbing protesters. Or when Mitchell proclaims that these disparate protesters with competing agendas are somehow all part of one grand liberal conspiracy, echoing modern-day right-wing conspiracy-mongering against a shadowy “Antifa” organization pulling the strings of everything from the Black Lives Matter protests to the Joe Biden campaign.
But “Chicago 7” is also very funny, especially between Hoffman and Rubin, who Sorkin portrays as sort of a counterculture Abbott & Costello. “Chicago 7” never lets its politics get in the way of a good story. In fact, Sorkin knows those politics are themselves a good story, the eternal struggle for the soul of the country that continues to this day, in different streets and different courtrooms.
Also on streaming: Sorkin is having a big week. HBO Max is hosting a reunion special of “The West Wing” starting Thursday as a benefit for “When We All Vote.” Interestingly, instead of doing a Q&A session or a new episode, the “West Wing” actors will be doing an on-stage recreation of a third-season episode of the show.
Heidi Schreck brings her politically-themed play “What the Constitution Means To Me” to Amazon Prime beginning on Friday. Schreck used to win Constitutional debate competitions as a teenager, and she resurrects those old speeches for a timely interrogation of her changing, frustrated, but still hopeful relationship with America.
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