The Trial of the Chicago 7: An Issue of Today, by Christian Thomey
Some movies come out at the wrong time and some movies come out at the right time, and those movies that come out at the right time often reflect the stories of our times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a historical drama directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. This movie tackles issues around free speech, freedom to protest, and the people versus police at a time where we as a country are experiencing some of the biggest travesties in American history. I am referring to, of course, the Insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th and the BLM protests surrounding September 30 of 2020, the release date of this movie. If The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the last year have taught me anything, it is that there are issues surrounding free speech, free protest, and the police. However, I’m not using this movie to discuss my political views. I’m here to analyze a political movie that, in my opinion, absorbs us in a reflection of our current reality more than any other courtroom drama has ever done prior.
A historical courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows the hearing of eight citizens after a protest-turned-violent during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The eighth man, the only African-American man, tried was Bobby Seale, who was played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Seale was charged separately from the Chicago 7 as the joint trial proceeded.
The exposition jumps between scenes to introduce each main character:
Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne.
Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong.
Rennie Davis, played by Alex Sharp.
David Dellinger, played by John Caroll Lynch.
To introduce the characters, editors used jump cuts to move from face to face, a strategy that works well to take advantage of screen time and keep viewers interested. A possible flaw with their exposition style is the lack of an immediate introduction to major supporting characters. Characters excluded from the initial introduction include: Defense William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the last two members of the Chicago 7, whom I will talk about later. Waiting to introduce these characters could have an affect on the impact their roles have, however, the decision makes sense in the context of the storyline. Through these characters, this movie addresses police brutality, racial injustice, complications of the first amendment, and the reality of corrupt legal systems.
Bobby Seale portrays the far too common tragedy of a black man falsely accused of murdering a police officer. The film uses this narrative to tackle corrupt legal systems: Seale is not allowed a lawyer, and when he tries to represent himself, he is not allowed to speak and no one is willing to listen to him. Sorkin phenomenally captured Seale’s powerless efforts to resist injustice, and Seale captivates the audience with every scene he is featured in.
Out of the Chicago 7, Tom Hayden serves as the main protagonist. His character gets caught between living under the status quo and doing what he thinks is right. Serving as the voice of reason among the 7, Hayden attempts to get the group to cooperate in the trial so no one is convicted, despite everyone else not listening to him. An easily frustrated and neurotic character, Hayden is sometimes quick to anger no matter how righteous his motivations are. Redmayne played Hayden’s character well by balancing his development from cautious activist to peaceful extremist.
As Hayden’s right hand man, Rennie Davis is not afraid to get his hands dirty to do the right thing. Davis struggles to balance a normal life with the woman he loves and a life of activism. both of which he believes in strongly.
The bromance and comic relief of the film centers around Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They are hippies committed to act for the greater good even if by extreme means. They do not try solving their problems by negotiating with others, but by whatever means they deem necessary. Abbie is the perfect foil to Hayden’s more calculated and diplomatic personality. One of the highlights of the film was watching these two explain their views of the world, which made for good drama. Abbie embodies the life-of-the-party hippie type constantly telling stories, cracking jokes, and making political statements in the most bizarre ways possible. Jerry represents the run-of-the-mill hippie as a stoner and hopeless romantic. He serves as Abbie’s right hand man, and together they insert a bit of light in the serious film.
Family man David Dellinger is not like the other six members of the Chicago 7. In some moments, he displays radical behavior, but in other moments, he practices reasonable restraint for his family’s sake. Although relatively quiet, he holds firm to his beliefs when necessary. John Caroll Lynch captured Dellinger’s dedication to nonviolent protests well in his portrayal. His role in this movie proves that he is worthy of more main roles in the future.
Characters William Kunstler and Richard Shultz are both very familiar with the law. They stand on opposing sides of the issue, but neither can be called the “good” or “bad” guy. Kunstler is a lawyer who makes no exceptions to what he can do, even if those exceptions seemed appropriate. For example, there was a scene in the movie where the judge suggested that he also represent Seale, who was being tried without a lawyer. He refused the judge every time not because he was discriminating against a black man, but because doing so would generally be illegal and unethical. Mark Rylance’s performance made up for my lack of prior knowledge of him. I don’t have much of an opinion about Richard Shultz. I thought Levitt portrayed him well, but I didn’t see as much development from him as I did from the others.
Judge Julius Hoffman, as the film makes clear, is not related to Abbie Hoffman. He serves as the antagonist of the film. He is a racist old man who is ignorant to his racism. He is incompetent at his job because he knows nothing about the law and instead makes decisions based on his own biases. It was even implied he would plant false evidence to relieve members of the jury so that he could replace them with members who would convict the Chicago 7, much to both lawyers’ dismay. Frank Langella beautifully portrayed him.
John Froines and Lee Weiner are the last two members of the Chicago 7 not introduced. They should’ve been, but instead they are put here. That is the best way I can describe their role in the film. They had no introduction, no character, and no relevance. They were just there, and they were the worst part of the movie. However, their portrayal was faithful and has context. What I began to notice was the reason why six people, one not part of the Chicago 7, were introduced in that opening scene, was because those six individuals played a prominent role in the actual riot in 1968. They were the instigators of the protests while Froines and Weiner were simply participants. Their presence was pointless and out of place because that is how they really were. They were not supposed to be at the trial and their actors did a great job portraying that. In other words, they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can appreciate this, but I didn’t enjoy it in the film. In other historical films like this, a character can be altered for dramatic effect while still being faithful to the original person. While I can appreciate their accurate portrayal, they were not entertaining. Their only saving grace is that you really forget they’re even there at all, so they don’t bring the film down.
Structure and Setting:
I thought the introduction of the characters was great, but the editing was a little hit or miss.
The film frequently jumps to different points in time. There were scenes where I didn’t know what time period it was. Also, some of the setting choices in this movie are a little bizarre. For example, in the background of Kuntsler’s house, there is a small poster of Hitler in the living room. It is not that noticeable, but I’m also not really sure where they were going with that. That decoration choice was bizarre because it sends mixed signals on how we are supposed to perceive these characters. On one hand, the movie is trying to have us root for these characters, but on the other hand, when a character you are supposed to root for has Nazi decorations in their home, it becomes counterproductive to the movie’s intent. What makes this choice even stranger is that there was no focus put on it. There was no explanation on why that poster was even there. It was meant to hide in the background. It is a small detail but it stands out because it feels so out of place. It interferes with the message of the film. It is noticeable enough to the audience to have them question Kunstsler’s character despite how the film wanted to present him, and then that says something about the rest of the Chicago 7, because Kunstler is representing them. It is a possibility that the poster was supposed to serve some symbolic purpose, but because it was neither hidden well enough nor properly explained, I have come to the conclusion that that detail was completely pointless and unnecessary.
Overall, I thought The Trial of the Chicago 7 was an outstanding movie and socially relevant. The biggest problems of the movie were very few small details that were not focused on much at all. The focus was on the writing, the characters, the performances, and the visual storytelling. Those are the movie’s greatest strengths, and overall, the movie exceeded any expectations I had going in. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it.