As the hopes for our country’s future hang in the balance over the next seven days, it took a Netflix-led trip back in time on Saturday night — filled with protests, flower power and judicial combat alike — to remind me about why we should all be thankful to step up to the polls and cast our votes for the men and women who will help decide where our nation goes from here.
That’s the incredible part about “Trial of the Chicago Seven,” director and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (“West Wing”) first work since his inaugural 2016 film “Molly’s Game,” which left me unfulfilled following nearly 30 perfect years of political storytelling wizardry.
Not only does he manage to present an account that far too many — myself included — have never heard, but he also provides a window through which we can remember how to recognize our differences, put them aside and strive towards meaningful change — something we need now more than ever.
“Trial of the Chicago Seven” transports viewers to 1969 and tells the true story of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors charged by the U.S. government with conspiracy and crossing state lines with intention to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
From Abbi Hoffman and Jerry Rubin — Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) and Jeremy Strong (“Succession”) respectively — to Tom Hayden, David Dellinger and Bobby Seale — Eddie Redmayne (“Theory of Everything), John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac”) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”, “Us”) — leaders and members of groups ranging from the SDS, Youth International, MOBE and Black Panther Parties are called to face repercussions for days’ worth of civil protests that quickly turned into a night of violent bloodshed, all led by Mark Rylance (“Ready Player One”) as famed civil rights and defense attorney William Kunstler.
Formidable in legal and social power, this collection of crusaders seems fueled to get themselves off the unfair charges they face, but soon find themselves squaring off against a talented young federal prosecutor named Richard Schultz — played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (“Inception,” “Dark Knight Trilogy”) — whose main task from President Nixon’s newly-appointed attorney general is ensuring that each man on trial sees the inside of a jail cell for the decade to follow, receiving aid in this lofty endeavor thanks to the untrustworthy — and even more unlikable — hand of Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) as U.S. District Court Judge Julius Hoffman.
In nearly two hours’ worth of verbal sparring and bench-rattling battles that only a king of the courtroom drama like Sorkin could bring to fruition, “Seven” lays out the opinions of each leader’s ideological visions and political perspectives before the riots like a pieces on a chessboard — illustrating the stark differences between ultimate objectives and trying to find a connection point behind how they all came to stand in front of the world’s biggest audience.
Ranging from Hoffman’s dope smoking, cultural revolutionary visions to Hayden’s more snobbish, egalitarian approach towards change, it’s clear from the moment the trial begins that the men neither like nor respect each other — bringing the tension and enormity to be found in all great Sorkin monologues and conversations to the forefront once more as everyone involved realize that whether they agree on how to make change, they’re all stuck in the mess together.
Led by the script of one of the world’s greatest living writers, “Seven” leaves a war of delicious wordplay for the cast to crush with stellar reenactments of the historical figures they aim to portray. Baron Cohen, born for the part of hippie leader Hoffman, carries such effortlessness into the film it’s baffling to comprehend why he hasn’t tackled a similar role earlier in his career, perfectly capturing the mockery, wittiness and utter disdain for “the system” the real man possessed other performers could only dream of reaching. He seems destined to be one of five called for a Best Supporting Actor nomination come awards in the spring, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see many of his revolutionary counterparts from the film standing alongside him.
Not to be outdone by Cohen alone, others including Mateen as Bobby Seale — who captures the swaggering conviction of the Black Panther founder in the opening moments and doesn’t let go throughout — and Gordon Levitt as Schultz — who excels in his role as a man who begins to recognize a widening gap between his legal duties and moral obligations as the case progresses — leap off the screen and work just as well to draw audiences into the heat of the historic narrative unfolding before them. This story, and this event, was custom-made for capital A “actors” in the leads and rest assured, there’s truly no shortage to be found anywhere here.
My only disappointment came from limited screen time by Michael Keaton as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, an essential testimony for the defense that feels like a home run but becomes another incidence of the judicial system wielding its all-too-powerful hand. I would’ve preferred to have him stick around for more than a few minutes during one of the most intense moments of the case, but I’ll settle for a performer of his caliber in any courtroom regardless.
While the screenplay crackles, Sorkin’s directorial choices expand upon contraction — with a return to his close-quarters comfort zone and a few fun twists keeping the film moving along the way. Walk and talks, popularized by the director’s previous work, abound through crowded hallways and unruly protests alike with Schultz, Hayden and others at the center of the frame, serving as the perfect avenue to showcase how both sides struggle to figure out the right way to push the case forward and bringing back the sense of familiarity and comfort for those who feared he would struggle to capture the same visual energy that his sharp writing provides.
His newer — and better — maneuvers come later, as the retelling of the Aug. 28 events reach a boiling point in the final act and Sorkin carefully finds ways to interpose real footage of the riots in-between choreographed sequences to illustrate the gravity of the event and how quickly it devolved despite efforts to maintain peace. Hokey and poorly constructed in the wrong hands, Sorkin appears to have taken the lessons he learned from stumbles in “Molly’s Game” to create real shock value for unfamiliar viewers — who soon realize this hideous footage once played on televisions like our own just a few decades earlier, while simultaneously drawing a map for how such a small irritation can lead to a gigantic explosion with severe consequences. Choices like these bring a sense of realism to the narrative unlike other historical dramas I’ve seen in recent years and emphasize parallels between both sides in a powerful way.
As we approach four more years of uncertainty, it’s crucial to recognize the fact that change can only happen if we, the people who want it, make it happen. Hoffman and Hayden clash on the notion of elections and what they mean towards starting a revolution by the end of the film, and while the conversation takes place in the heart of a divided 1960s America — it couldn’t feel any more prescient in a time or place as contentious as our current climate today.
While I’ll save the political commentary for the folks at the news desk, “Trial of the Chicago Seven” is an enormous feat of filmmaking from one of the industry’s best, perfectly released in the middle of a social, political and cultural moment unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lives beforehand. There’s nothing better to consume as inspiration surrounding election day, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see it land among Oscar frontrunner lists aplenty in weeks ahead.