Tuesday 24 November 2020

Movie Review: The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020)

A courtroom drama based on real events, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 explores a legal assault on democratic principles by regressive but camouflaged ideology.

August 1968 is approaching and various groups of anti-Vietnam War protesters plan to descend on Chicago for the Democratic Party National Convention. The Mayor's office responds with a large police presence and a National Guard deployment. Five months later, the Nixon administration assumes power and new Attorney General Mitchell directs federal prosecutor Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to prosecute seven activists for the events of August 1968 on charges of cross-state conspiracy to invoke violence. 

With Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) presiding, the defendants include Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) of the Students for a Democratic Society, and Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. They are represented by defence counsel William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Bizarrely thrown into the same courtroom is Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but without a lawyer to represent him.

From the outset the trial proceedings descend into farce, with Judge Hoffman obviously prejudiced against the defendants and taking every opportunity to exasperate Kunstler. And over the long trial duration, underlying tensions between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden bubble to the surface.

While delving into events from a different societal era, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 provides piercing commentary on the misuse of power as a cautionary tale applicable in a modern context. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin deploys his usual sharp dialogue exchanges and witty retorts to enliven infamous court proceedings from the late 1960s, but the contemporary message hides in plain sight: one vindictive Attorney General and one intolerant judge are all it takes to threaten basic freedoms and destroy lives.

The script generally excels in both words and dynamism, skipping from pre-convention preparations straight to the trial, then circling back to the Chicago clashes between police and protesters in often gripping, tension-filled flashbacks as part of the testimony. The fine margins between protests and riots are defined by the briefest of words and actions and become key turning points in activist history.

But with the charges clearly trumped up and the judge on a one-man quest to pervert justice, this is starkly delineated right and wrong storytelling. The few arguments between Abbie Hoffman (revolution through dope and hippies!) and Tom Hayden (revolution through politics and policies!) don't disguise the absence of meaningful intrinsic moral dilemmas. Sorkin also displays a tendency to twiddle the manipulative knobs to eleven, and on a few occasions the music soars to schmaltzy registers while the courtroom histrionics abandon theatre in favour of opera.

The ensemble cast members contribute plenty of talent but enjoy few opportunities to shine. The defendants are efficiently drawn, although the characters are static. Mark Rylance as the lawyer Kunstler carries the heaviest dramatic weight, while Frank Langella's Judge Hoffman is the pantomime villain. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead prosecutor starts strong but fades almost into insignificance, while Michael Keaton contributes a small but key role as a prominent defence witness. Important female roles are conspicuous by their absence.

It may be too well-intentioned, but The Trial Of The Chicago 7 nevertheless carries timeless lessons about the slippery slopes threatening all democracies: the system only functions when the guardians care enough to protect it.

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