Friday, March 19, 2021

The Trial of the Chicago 7: A Review


In these heady days where every Antifa or Black Lives Matter protester dreams of being the next great revolutionary, perhaps it is no surprise that people look back in nostalgia at the tumult the United States faced in another election year: 1968. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is well-acted, well-written and exceptionally laudatory towards the seven defendants. 

A year after the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention erupted in violent protests, the Nixon Administration decides to charge nine men with conspiracy to incite a riot. The lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insists that the case is unwinnable because there is no case, but the Administration insists the case must go on.

The trial gathers a motley crew that is essentially four groups. There is the Respectable Revolutionary duo of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), who are committed to progressive politics via elections. There is the Counterculture Clowns of Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) who enjoy the theatrical nature of mocking the Establishment. There's David Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch), the square peacenik who looks like the Establishment but whose antiwar, nonviolent beliefs border on fanatical. There's Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the lone black man who is affiliated with the Black Panthers.

There's also John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), whom judging from the film are like the description Young Mr. Grace from Are You Being Served? gave Mr. Rumbold when the latter protested he hadn't been featured in a This is Your Life-type tribute to his boss. "I expect you were probably too boring".

Under the court of the eccentric Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who at times seems openly hostile to the defendants, at other times genuinely senile if not flat-out bonkers, the trial becomes part-circus, part-protest. Defense attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Wineglass (Ben Shenkman) keep coming up with roadblocks from both Hoffmans in terms of their distinct behaviors. As the case continues we get the backstory of the demonstrations, ones involving Chicago Police informants masquerading as love interests, grammatical errors that led to wholesale violence, and overall loopyness. At the end, we learn the various fates of the most important characters, which range from elected office to suicides.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is squarely on the defendants side in the same way Judge Hoffman was on the prosecution's side. You have in the film a sharp split between the overtly antagonistic Hoffman/Rubin, who treat this "political trial" as a farce and the equally radical but more square-like Hayden/Davis, who also think the trial is a farce but are more observant of norms. The yin and yang is primarily Hoffman and Hayden, as in the film Davis comes across as essentially a radical nerd and Rubin an early version of Cheech & Chong.

At times Rubin seems so thoroughly whacked-out it's a wonder he can function. When talking to Schultz, Rubin appears convinced the female undercover cop and he were on the cusp of a genuine affair. He seems more distressed that he was dumped than that he was duped, and it's debatable if Rubin is actually aware that he was duped or aware of anything resembling reality.

This is as close to an insight into the men that we get, and it's not much of one. Essentially, their manner is their defining trait: buttoned up (Hayden/Davis), clowns (Hoffman/Rubin), the older man who blends between them (Dellinger), the angry black man (Seale) and "the rest" (Froines/Weiner). Their motivations, their joint radicalism, their fiery antiwar views, exist but The Trial of the Chicago 7 seems more a portrait of conflicting behaviors than a group of men united by their rage at a system they see as awry.

Historical accuracy aside, The Trial of the Chicago 7 also goes a bit overboard at times. There's a very romantic vision of Grant Park protests, with happy hippies singing while some burn their draft cards and others their bras. Having swelling music as Hayden reads off a list of troops killed in Vietnam as their trial dragged to 151 days was a touch too much, drenching the film in faux-inspiration that I think would be criticized in other films regardless of topic.

I can't fault The Trial of the Chicago 7 for being well-acted as it is. Of the ensemble cast, I would put both Hoffmans at the top. Langella's Judge Hoffman was in turns arrogant and oddball, where one didn't know whether he was merely hostile to these crazed individuals or crazy himself. Cohen's Abbie Hoffman is a clown but a thinking one, taking on a generally mocking tone towards everything but unlike the drugged-out Rubin aware of things. 

Other performances, such as Rylance, were equally strong. Rylance's Kunstler not only kept to the defense attorney's voice but also showed him to be the rare adult in the room.

The weaker performances were Redmayne and Gordon-Levitt. With regards to the latter, I never believed he was Schultz, a man who knew he had no case but decided to try and win. Instead, I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not Richard Schultz. I can't say whether Redmayne's nasally voice mirrored Hayden's, but he struck me as more interested in the mechanics of his performance than in the character himself. To be fair, this is common for Redmayne, but there it is.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 also has a surprising bad closing song, Hear My Voice, that I found grating both in terms of lyrics and singing.

I waver a bit on The Trial of the Chicago 7, but that swelling music at the end was what turned me against the film. That and the fact that I found myself mostly siding with the prosecution, which I don't think was the intended result. It's good not great but not something I would rush to see.


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