Producers: Marc Platt, Stuart Besser, Matt Jackson and Tyler Thompson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, John Doman, Alice Kremelberg, J.C. Mackenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall and C.J. Wilson Distributor: Netflix
There’s literal truth and dramatic truth, and Aaron Sorkin’s film about the 1969=1970 trial of the seven (originally eight) defendants charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention makes up for the looseness with which it treats the former with an abundance of the latter. It’s easy to point out the transpositions Sorkin has made, as well as important omissions and revisions to the record. One can also speculate whether aspects of the writer-director’s style—its slickness, its love of super-articulate language—are entirely appropriate to the subject at hand. But as anyone who lived through the late sixties and early seventies would probably admit, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” captures the temper of the time and the intensity of the trial even as it reflects a contemporary perspective about their relevance to present-day politics.
The cast of characters was, of course, a colorful one. The defendants were a disparate, and often feuding, bunch. On the one hand were the prankster Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). They stood in contrast to the serious-minded, strait-laced Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the Students for a Democratic Society. The older David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was a veteran pacifist who, by all accounts, tried to keep the peace between them, too. Off to the side were the afterthoughts, John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), minor figures who themselves wondered why they were named along with such big fish; they’re told that their presence is explained by the prosecution’s need for a face-saving appearance of fairness, being the two defendants who could be acquitted (as they were) while the others were convicted.. And waging his own war was the original eighth defendant Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the head of the Black Panthers, who had little to do with the demonstrations that turned into a riot but was added to the defendants because, as someone remarks, the feds needed an African-American face to frighten the jury.
The opposing attorneys also provide stark contrasts, though with some odd similarities. At the defense table is William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), who with his long-hair comb-over looks every inch the persistent crusader for lost causes he is. His associate Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) pretty much fades into the background. And Seale, as he and Kunstler keep insisting, is without counsel, since his lawyer is hospitalized. Still he’s forced to remain a defendant and not even allowed to represent himself. On the prosecution team the lead spot is supposedly held by Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) as Head US Attorney in the district. But he hands over actual presentation of the case to his young colleague Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a spit-and-polish fellow with a brisk, clipped style.
And there’s one more major figure—presiding judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose bias against the defense is apparent from the start, whose inability to control the courtroom increases his hostility, and whose patently unfair rulings were instrumental in leading the US Circuit Court of Appeals not only to reverse all the convictions but to vacate the many citations for contempt Hoffman had issued during the trial.
To tell this story Sorkin has assembled an extraordinarily able cast, so much so that it’s difficult to single out individuals for special praise. Nonetheless one can’t avoid noting Cohen’s ability to channel Hoffman’s singular humor and poise, Strong’s portrayal of Rubin’s far less disciplined approach, Lynch’s success in conveying Dellinger’s almost endless equanimity, Redmayne’s depiction of Hayden’s tortured internal struggle, Rylance’s balancing of Kunstler’s mixture of dignity and exasperation, Abdul-Mateen’s evocation of Seale’s righteous anger, and Langella’s feel for Judge Hoffman’s combination of imperiousness and ineffectuality. We also get two good performances by actors impersonating United States attorneys general: John Doman makes a gruff, unapologetically belligerent John Mitchell, and Michael Keaton emphasizes the no-nonsense honesty of Mitchell’s predecessor Ramsey Clark, whose important proffer of testimony Hoffman blithely rejects as irrelevant, as well as a stirring one by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who advised Seale but was killed in a police raid while the trial dragged on.
Gordon-Levitt, as usual, offers an unusually subtle turn, but one’s appreciation for it may be impeded by the way in which Sorkin has chosen to portray Schultz. By all accounts the lawyer was as committed to the prosecution as Foran was, though more sophisticated in expressing himself than his boss. But here Schultz is turned into a more ambivalent sort, questioning Mitchell’s insistence on prosecuting the case in the first place and then enjoying a rather extraneous scene with his kids where a “good guy” image is reinforced. He also shows a sense of decency in the big finale that Foran is portrayed as lacking. It’s almost as though Sorkin wants to turn Schultz into a younger mirror image of Atticus Finch—whom Sorkin has just recreated in the stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird”—as a man challenged to embrace his convictions but who, unlike Atticus, chooses expediency instead. However much skill Gordon-Levitt puts into this view of Schultz, it doesn’t end up feeling true.
In connection with that, one has to take issue with that big uplifting finale Schultz plays a role in. It’s not exactly a total invention (an episode similar to it happened earlier in the trial), but comes fairly close. There have been earlier instances in the film where Sorkin has played with the facts for dramatic effect (as with Hoffman’s infamous decision to shackle and gag Searle and return him to the courtroom—an act of gross judicial overreach that actually went on for some days, though here the crowd’s outrage is such that Hoffman immediately retreats). But this one is especially egregious. True, it does give the story the euphoric climax one might wish for, but unlike a fictional piece like “The West Wing,” the movie claims to be depicting history, not presenting fantasy, and you have to wonder whether such rewriting of the record is wise, however emotionally satisfying it might be.
Still, you have to admit that dramatically it works, and so does “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as a whole. It melds archival footage from 1968 with modern recreations exceptionally well, thanks not only to Sorkin and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael but also to editor Alan Baumgarten, who throughout juxtaposes scenes of reflection, ferocity and suspense to create a powerful mosaic (the repeated shots of Chicago cops removing their badges before wading into demonstrators with batons at the ready are truly chilling). Shane Valentino’s production design and Susan Lyall’s costumes exhibit close attention to period detail, as do the art direction and set decoration. A properly supportive score by Daniel Pemberton adds to the exceptional craft work.
This is a story that has been told on film before, and some of the earlier versions, like HBO’s 1987 docu-drama, hold up quite well. Despite the liberties it takes, Sorkin’s is a distinguished addition to them, meriting a place beside another film recreating, with modifications, an important American political trial—the 1960 “Inherit the Wind,” easily the best movie Stanley Kramer ever made. Some would argue that’s not saying much given Kramer’s track record, but it holds up well. So will “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”