“The Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state.” – Walter Cronkite
1968 was a year of global social upheaval. Mass student protest erupted in Europe and the Americas, in response to growing authoritarian overtures, including the Vietnam War. The movement began in March with riots in Poland. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April, the United States found itself at the zenith of a confrontation between Hoover’s FBI and the Black Panther Party.
In this most turbulent year, of the most turbulent decade of the latter 20th century, the Democratic National Convention was set to kick off in Chicago on August 26, at a time when the party risked alienating progressives over President Johnson’s stance on Vietnam. A massive protest led by the Students for a Democratic Society takes place in Grant Park, with approximately 15,000 in attendance. Among them, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), arrested and prosecuted by the Department of Justice for incitement to riot, would come to be known as The Chicago Seven.
Five months after the convention, the Department of Justice brings in two attorneys, Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to prosecute the Seven. They meet with Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman). Schultz isn’t sure they can get an indictment on conspiracy. He doubts the success of bringing the first charges to ever be brought under the Rap Brown Law (Anti-Riot Act; 18 U.S.C. §2101), which codifies interstate travel to incite riots as a criminal act. It has its origins in Southern Lawmakers efforts to quash Black civil rights activism. The aftershocks are felt today, when the very same Department of Justice once again seeks to conflate protests and riots—particularly when they are for Black causes—and local law enforcement agencies instigate violence.
Worried this could blow up in their face, Schultz turns to Foran, “We’re giving them exactly what they want—a stage and an audience.”
Foran replies, “Do you really think there’s gonna be a big audience?”
Naturally, the editor cuts to the sound of a crowd outside the U.S. District Court, chanting, “The whole world is watching!”
The movie, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort after Molly’s Game, begins as a well-paced, engaging take on the summer of 1968—beginning with a montage of current events set to a contrapuntally-upbeat Go-Go dancer music. Four units of Illinois National Guard, totaling five-thousand troops, are sent to quell the demonstrations. While Jerry teaches a group of protesters how to make Molotov cocktails, a teletype machine ticks away. On national television, Walter Cronkite updates America. People talk as if they know they’re in a movie. At one point, Weiner quips, “This is the Academy awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned it’s an honor just to be nominated.”
The film hums along for most of its length but shifts gears following the death of Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison). For as kinetic and smooth a scene juggler as Sorkin, it seems odd that he can’t keep the third pin in the air. Portraying Bobby Seale, the eighth man released from trial when Judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) viscerally-racist gag order stymies the proceedings, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s talent is woefully underused. The story’s focus moves completely away from the Black Panther Party despite the Rap Brown Law being absolutely essential to its message. H. Rap Brown, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, played a central role in the nationwide protests of 1968 and served as the Black Panther Party’s minister of justice. Instead, Sorkin fills the time with courtroom buffonery straight out of MY COUSIN VINNY.
It’s not the inclusion of Hoffman and Rubin’s yippie hijinx, or Judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) gaffes. Hoffman and Rubin really did show up in judicial robes with police uniforms underneath. Judge Hoffman’s bench demeanor and ill application of the law did earn him an “unfavorable” rating from 78% of Chicago attorneys surveyed. But the film’s climax dispenses with the importance of the case, of the lingering effects of the Rap Brown Law, and falls prey to Sorkin’s tendency toward sensationalism. It’s that very quality, along with his good, old fashioned sexism, that beset his HBO series, The Newsroom—an attempt at criticizing the the very edge he profligately abuses.
But does any of this make THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 a bad film? Not necessarily. But it lacks any real social impact the way that Sorkin’s packaging it in Spike Lee’s visual lexicon intends, with a message that matters now more than ever. Fortunately for the picture’s obvious Oscar aspirations, as the didactic prankster, Sacha Baron Cohen is a revelation. Class clown turns teacher taking the stand… a stand. Schultz questions Hoffman on the motives behind Hayden’s seemingly inciteful statement, “If blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city.”
Hoffman gives an allegory about the importance of context. Then, as now, what are the protests about? He asks, “The police, Mr. Schultz, whose people are they?”
“Do you have contempt for your government?” asks Schultz.
“I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that are right now populated by some terrible people.”
We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”John F. Kennedy; from the Dallas Trade Mart speech he was to deliver on 22 November 1963
Netflix will release The Trial of the Chicago 7 in select theaters September 25 then globally stream it on October 16.