Film Reviews

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Published April 9, 2021
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This year’s Academy Awards is shaping up as an unusually open event. From the eight nominees for Best Picture there are three by female directors, three more made for streaming platforms, with only a limited theatrical release. The directors are French, English, African-American, Korean-American and Chinese-American, with only three fitting the standard white male template.

Does this heterogenous list indicate the members of the Academy are making a conscious effort to be more inclusive, perhaps more politically correct? Well maybe, but it’s more likely that the pandemic year has worked to discourage the big studios from unleashing their most high-profile productions. Viewers have had to reassess what they are looking for in a successful movie.

Along with COVID-19 the biggest influence on American cinema over the past year or two has obviously been the Trump presidency. Faced with a government that seemed determined to divide the United States into bitterly antagonistic tribes, filmmakers have felt compelled to address social and cultural issues (Nomadland, Minari), or hark back to the 1960s – the last time American society was so comprehensively splintered (The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah).

Nomadland, which is favoured to take out the Oscar, would be the most low-key movie ever to receive that honour. It would be a major indicator that Americans are looking to heal a fractured sense of community and demonstrate compassion for the millions of fellow citizens who have become collateral damage.

This is not the message they will take away from The Trial of the Chicago 7. Master wordsmith, Aaron Sorkin, has written and directed a courtroom drama that reconstructs one of the most bizarre, shameful episodes in U.S. legal history – and that’s saying a lot. Feeling emboldened by its election victory the Nixon administration sought to crush the subversive elements in American society that had clashed with the forces of law and order in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of August, 1968.

Mayor Richard J. Daley’s heavy-handed approach, which entailed refusing permits to protesters while assembling a gigantic police presence, did nothing but increase the likelihood of conflict. The result was 11 people dead, a heavy toll of injuries and 2,150 arrests. It was an object lesson in how to mismanage civil disobedience.

To lay the blame on the protesters the government’s preferred method was a show trial, not so different from the trials Stalin had used in the 1930s to eliminate his enemies within the Party and instill fear in the rest. Like their Soviet predecessor, Nixon’s gang worked to ensure there was not the slightest chance the verdict would go against them. They could not, however, exert complete control over the media or public opinion.

The much-vaunted, much-abused First Amendment to the US Constititution that enshrines the right to free speech, is being championed today by every right-wing warrior with an animus against blacks, women, gays, Jews, Muslims,  Latinos, Asians, liberals or Democrats. But the First Amendment also allows for the criticism of institutional power and authority. No American government, no matter how anti-democratic its biases, can stifle legitimate criticism – although it’s not for want of trying.

Ramsey Clarke, the outgoing Attorney General under the Johnson administration, had investigated the Chicago riots, determined the police were to blame for the violence, and took no further action. Nixon’s new AG, John Mitchell, had a different idea, seeing Chicago as an opportunity to crack down on those leading the protest movement against the Vietnam War.

The figureheads of the movement were singled out and charges cobbled together on the basis of a conspiracy to cross state lines and incite violence. The accusation was so threadbare the film begins with Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the lawyer asked to prosecute the case, expressing his scepticism to an AG fired with ideological zeal and petty resentment.

The seven defendants were Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis from Students for a Democratic Society; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, leaders of the Yippies; middle-aged conscientious objector, David Dellinger; community activists, Lee Weiner and John Froines. Black Panther, Bobby Seale, was added to the group as an extra piece of theatre, even though he had allegedly spent only four hours in Chicago.

The judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), soon showed everybody that he was completely barking and had no intentions of allowing a fair trial. The lawyers for the Defence, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) would grow increasingly frustrated by the absurdist nature of proceedings. By the end of the trial Kunstler had acquired so many  ‘contempt of court’ violations he would have been imprisoned for four years had the charges stood.

We find ourselves in court almost immediately but the story of the riots emerges gradually, through a series of flashbacks triggered by testimony. It’s a seamless process, and here we see Sorkin’s skill in the way we are familiarised with the leading protagonists and the tensions within this makeshift group. There’s a lot of talk but it’s always engaging. The main lines of argument are drawn between Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) who wants to appear responsible, and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who sees the trial as a political farce that should be treated with disdain and ridicule.

As the story progresses the roles are reversed, with Cohen bringing a thoughtful, highly literate Hoffman to the witness box, while Hayden stands revealed as a hot-head. Perhaps the most outrageous part of the trial is the treatment of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose lawyer can’t appear because of a gall-bladder operation. Judge Hoffman rules the trial must proceed anyway, leaving Seale without representation. At his every attempt to speak he is told to sit down, until his frustrations turn into rage, which is supressed by an appalling act of force.

There is also an appearance by Fred Hampton, the young Panther leader who features in Judas and the Black Messiah. Hampton would be killed – many believe “executed” is the correct word – by J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI while the trial dragged on. It’s a reminder of how high the stakes were, and the lengths to which the authorities would go in their efforts to quell dissent. The trial may be pure black comedy but there’s a lethal undercurrent that keeps edging its way to the surface.

Inevitably we find ourselves measuring this kangaroo court against the events of the present day, when Black Lives Matter protests have raged across America, and the Supreme Court has been so stacked it seems only a matter of time before a new politico-legal crisis beckons. Indeed, had Trump been re-elected it might have been the Clintons, the Obamas and the Bidens featuring in a show trial. Instead we’re set for a long line of courtroom dramas featuring hundreds of self-styled patriots who stormed the Capitol on 6 January. The crowning glory will be the long-delayed appearance in the dock of a former President facing an entire anthology of lawsuits. One suspects these trials will be conducted in a more forensic manner than in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom.




The Trial of the Chicago 7

Written & directed by Aaron Sorkin

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton

USA/UK/India, rated M, 129 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 April, 2021