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"THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7"
(2020) (Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A small group of 1960s era anti-war protestors are put on trial for conspiracy to incite riots at the previous year's Democratic National Convention.
PLOT:

A year after riots broke out near the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a trial begins where the defendants are charged with that rioting as well as conspiracy during their anti-war protests. They are Tom Hayden (EDDIE REDMAYNE) and Rennie Davis (ALEX SHARP), the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; Abbie Hoffman (SACHA BARON COHEN) and Jerry Rubin (JEREMY STRONG), the leaders of the Youth International Party (Yippies); David Dellinger (JOHN CARROLL LYNCH), the leader of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; anti-war activists John Froines (DANNY FLAHERTY) and Lee Weiner (NOAH ROBBINS); and Bobby Seale (YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II), National Chairman of the Black Panther Party who claims he has nothing to do with them as he wasn't present at the riots.

Representing all of them except for Bobby -- whose lawyer is unable to attend the proceedings, thus meaning Fred Hampton (KELVIN HARRISON JR.) must whisper legal advice to him from the general audience -- are lawyers William Kunstler (MARK RYLANCE) and Leonard Weinglass (BEN SHENKMAN). Representing the U.S. government are federal prosecutors Richard Schultz (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) and his boss Thomas Foran (J.C. MACKENZIE) who've been sent there by the current U.S. Attorney General to make sure all of the men are convicted despite his predecessor under a different Administration, Ramsey Clark (MICHAEL KEATON), having previously concluded that charges weren't merited.

Overseeing the proceedings is Judge Julius Hoffman (FRANK LANGELLA) whose mental faculties seem to be in question although his actions show what he believes the outcome of the trial should be. As that plays out over the following months, the defendants waver between bickering among themselves to showing solidarity, all while Kunstler tries to figure out how to deal with the mentally unfit judge and actions by Schultz to try to put the men behind bars.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

With short memories and sometimes not enough education, plenty of people think we're in unprecedented times of political turmoil. Yes, plenty of bad things are happening now on political and other fronts, but this isn't an anomaly.

In just the past century and change, there have been two world wars, two global pandemics, a depression and many recessions, plenty of crooked politicians, and paranoid fueled movements such as McCarthyism that swept across the country in the 1950s.

But few times were as contentious as the 1960s. A President and later his brother running for president were assassinated, as were two pivotal Civil Rights leaders. The Vietnam War was claiming ever more American (and other) lives and the Cold War was getting hotter, while the counterculture movement was roiling the status quo, resulting in protests, riots, and the U.S. government racking up quite a domestic enemies list.

And by U.S. government I mean Richard Nixon who had an extensive list, much of that proved by the tapes he recorded during his time in the White House. And on some of those tapes, he blames protests against the Vietnam war on the likes of the Chicago 7, saying he believes all of them to be Jews (one of his favorite scapegoat groups).

For those not familiar with the C-7, they were a group of anti-war protestors who ended up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968 to protest the war, the draft, and the increasing number of U.S. soldiers being killed in a faraway land. A clash between protestors broke out and the septet of activists -- along with the national leader of the Black Panthers who wasn't directly involved with them -- ended up arrested and charged with conspiracy across state lines to cause violent riots.

They ended up on trial a year later and their tale is now told by writer/director Aaron Sorkin in the appropriately titled "The Trial of the Chicago 7." No stranger to the world of politics in his writing -- what with being behind "The American President" and "The West Wing," Sorkin dives headfirst into the story. After a brief prologue introducing the main characters (with on-screen titles to identify and keep everyone straight -- and a somewhat odd, upbeat score during these quick scenes), we get to the main event fairly quickly.

Presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) whose mental faculties are south of sharp, the lawyer for the defense, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), tries to prove that his clients -- Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) -- are innocent of the charges leveled against them, but isn't representing the national chairman of the Blank Panthers, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen Ii), who refuses his assistance. On the other side is federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who's being pressured from higher up to put the radicals behind bars.

Truth be told, had I not known going in that Sorkin wrote the screenplay, I never would have guessed it was his work. That's not to say it's bad -- conversely, it's fairly good -- but rather that it's missing the scribe's rapid-fire signature style that makes his writing usually so easy to identify.

Purposeful or not, that's seemingly been relegated to the back seat in favor of drawing parallels to what's happening in today's world -- at least in the U.S. -- teaming with racism, clashes between police and protestors, political vindictiveness, and so on. It's telling that Sorkin uses an actual clip of legendary "that's the way it is" newsman Walter Cronkite at the '68 convention stating in disbelief that it's occurring in what can only be described as a police state.

Thankfully, the pushing and preaching, if you will, of the parallels never gets too heavy-handed or distracting, but it would take living in a non-media, non-social networked world not to notice the similarities and that it seems not a lot has changed over the past half-century.

While I wasn't blown away by the overall film or any of the performances, there's no denying they are good across the board, most notably from Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their legal opponent. And Frank Langella makes for a scary judge in that he's not impartial and isn't playing with a full deck up top, a scary combo then and now.

Only being five at the time of the trial and otherwise only being slightly familiar with the true-life story after that, I can't say if or how much Sorkin has altered any of the characters or events for storytelling -- dramatic or politically motivated -- purposes. But the end result is an engaging look at a tumultuous period in our history that proves we haven't evolved much if any since then. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 14, 2020 / Posted October 16, 2020


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