The Trial of the Chicago 7: Filmnetic Review

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The list of best picture nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards shows just how big of an impact streaming services have had on the film industry this past year. With films like Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and Judas and the Black Messiah all being nominated in the ceremony’s most prestigious award of the night, it’s really anyone’s game. The best way to really take in these films is one-by-one and the one that is getting its own spotlight today is The Trial of the Chicago 7.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, like many other films this year, was originally set to premiere in theaters, but due to the pandemic, it was released in select theatres in September 2020 and was later released digitally on Netflix where it can still be streamed today. The film was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and starred many familiar faces including Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Carroll Lynch to name a few. This star-studded cast set out to portray the story of the 7 people who were on trial for charges related to the uprising that ensued at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. These events came to be known as the 1968 Chicago Riots. 

It’s always beneficial to understand the background of a film that draws from true events and it’s no different here. The film hits the ground running from the very beginning, showing where each member of the Chicago 7 was in the days leading up to the Democratic National Convention. With that being said, a full and detailed knowledge of the Chicago riots is not required to watch the film but would definitely be helpful in preventing any confusion. The people behind the camera took into account that not everyone is familiar with what all went down and used that knowledge to piece together a great structure for the film.

The historical drama uses real video footage and images from the events that transpired in the summer of 1968. From the very start, you are sucked into the political and social climate that bred the 1968 Chicago riots. If you have no idea about the history or timeline of events, the structure of the film will give you a quick crash course on some of the things that you need to know. There are moments at the beginning where you feel a little lost because the timing goes from before the riots to the start of the trial, completely skipping over what actually happened during the riots. This, however, will reveal itself as one of the biggest strengths of the film. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

As the title would suggest, the film is centered around the trial itself. The actual trial that the film draws its inspiration from is often called “one of the most dramatic in American history” and as you work your way through the film, it’s clear to see why. There is a big disconnect between what is fact and what has been twisted to orchestrate a false narrative against the seven (originally eight) defendants. The editing makes it clear that this is what the film is looking to bring to light. 

Every testimony heard in the court is partnered with a flashback to what actually happened. You get to see the events that transpired, hear the spin that is being put on it and form your own opinion on what perspective you agree with. Perspective. What keeps this film from being just another courtroom drama is its ability to capture perspective. Not only do you see what happened from the “rioters’” side, you get to see the politics that controlled everything from behind the scenes. It is this perspective that creates the pulse and secures the pacing of what could otherwise be a convoluted story.    

There is a constant revolving energy that is obvious throughout the film. There’s always the feeling that you’re missing something, and the answer is right around the next corner. However, the answer to that question just breeds another and sets you on this journey to find out the truth. Unfortunately, it seems as if the truth is constantly being rejected through every step of the process which is frustrating because wouldn’t the assumption be that a trial is meant to expose the truth? So yes. It’s safe to say that the story consumes you. 

While there are many points in the trial where the witness statements are paired with flashbacks of the events to match, the scene that brings every element together is when you finally find out what happened on the day of the “riots.” The combination of the in-court witness account, the events being played out and the actual footage is a true culmination of some of the best editing work to come out of any film recognized during this awards season.

The events on the day of the clashing between the police and the demonstrators elicit pure shock and for a few reasons. The first is because the pairing of the events being narrated by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character (Abbie Hofman) and actual visual footage of the events creates a pulse that continues to quicken and quicken until it reaches its pinnacle. The second is because once you realize this is what the trial is about, it becomes strikingly clear that there will likely be no justice by the end of the trial. The events are being spun into something that just isn’t true and the defendants are being used as symbols and scapegoats for a situation that was fueled by anger and frustration over a government that was failing its people.

However, the shock and utter disbelief does not end there. Throughout the trial, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is a prevalent character as he is the eighth defendant sat at the side of the Chicago 7. He continuously clashes with the judge throughout the trial because he is not being granted the rights that are allotted to him by law. These clashes led to the most disturbing and gut-wrenching scene of the film. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The incompetent Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella) allows for Bobby Seale to be bound and gagged in the courtroom. Everything about this scene causes your heart to stop. The subtle scoring, the gasps from the crowd, the reaction of the Chicago 7 and the nod Abdul-Mateen II gives all capture the energy that one can assume to have been in the courtroom that day (in the actual trial, Bobby Seale was bound and gagged for several days). This is the moment where you can feel the shift in momentum in the trial and once again, you are thrust back into the never-ending loop of revelations and frustration that is the story of The Chicago 7.

The editing was a standout throughout the entire film, but it would not have had a fraction of the impact it had without the actor’s commitment to the portrayal of their characters. Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as Abbie Hoffman cannot go without its praise. Having previously played roles like Borat and Bruno, there wasn’t a question about the actor’s ability to inject humor into the story but what he did as Hoffman was something completely different. Yes, there were still those elements of humor but instead of it being wild or eliciting an uncomfortable laugh, this humor was more of a scoff at the system. There was humor in his truth and when you see that this humor is just the surface level of an intelligent and motivated character, it leaves no question as to why Cohen was chosen for this role. 

The initial thought was that Eddie Redmayne would be a scene-stealer with his portrayal as Tom Hayden but that wasn’t the case (though his climactic final words came close). There was an even balance. Redmayne embodied Hayden’s serious, calculated and firm attitude toward the trial and the “riots” themselves. He and Cohen were also able to capture the essence of the relationship between their characters. Hayden is originally confident in his stance on Abbie’s form of activism but is eventually proven wrong and is able to adjust his own perspective and gain a little understanding of Abbie’s mind. It’s that hidden depth and brilliance in Abbie that was unexpected to see Cohen personify.

Other standouts in the film were Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Joseph Gordon – Levitt as Richard Schultz and of course, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. Langella was able to capture the idiocy that was Judge Hoffman to a T. He fueled much of the anger and frustration throughout the trial because he was a clear representation and extension of a system that is so inherently flawed. His judgments were malicious and spiteful and his initial refusal to even say the defendant’s names correctly gave you a quick understanding that he was going to be a continual issue. 

The character portrayals and the editing are what make The Trial of the Chicago 7 stand out among its competitors in the best picture category. There was an initial fear that a film like this would feel performative in the social and political climate we are living through today. Thankfully, that was not the case. It was a realistic take on the events of the 1968 Chicago riots which made it all the more impactful. The integration of real footage was such a smart move because it gave the story truth.  

The focus was on the events that transpired at the 1968 Chicago riots and the timing of its release only helped fuel the impact of the message. So much of it closely resembles the charged energy in the country right now, making it that much more important for this film to not be overly dramatized. The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than earned its Oscar nominations for best picture, best original screenplay, best achievement in film editing, best achievement cinematography and best achievement in music. It was able to be shocking, moving and captivating without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

Filmnetic Grade: A+

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