Review of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and its importance right now

Image via Netflix

Image via Netflix

Varun Khushalani, Staff Writer

*Spoiler Alert* – This review contains spoilers for this Netflix film

Writer and director Aaron Sorkin—fresh off his brief stint on Broadwayreturns to Hollywood with his new Netflix movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. Sorkin, writer of “Moneyball” and “The West Wing,” artfully shows the chaotic protests at the 1968 DNC of US involvement in Vietnam. He also shows the riot that followed many violent confrontations with police, and the dramatic, and at times inhuman, trial of 8 protesters who were charged with crossing interstate lines to incite a riot.

Sorkin has always been a master of storytelling and in creating beautiful dialogue—this movie is no different. The back and forth between two of the main defendants, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), is perfectly formed, with each joke and remark manufactured to advance the development of the characters. The confusing and racist actions of the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Mangella), are expertly portrayed and serve to drive the story along while showing a deeper insight in what Sorkin is really trying to discuss.

However, this movie is imperfect—Sorkin repeats what he knows he’s good at but doesn’t take the chance to be bold or innovative—experiment. Don’t get me wrong—his style complements his intelligent, creative characters like President Bartlet (“The West Wing”), Mark Zuckerberg (“The Social Network”), or Steve Jobs (“Jobs”). But, in a story exemplifying the works of real people and real protest, there is a cover of artificiality which, at times, softens the realness of the dialogue. I know Sorkin is able to exemplify the “realness” of a story, because he does it so well in “Moneyball,” where he is able to tell a story of baseball and statistics without making the dialogue sound like perfectly thought out discourse. While eloquent and musical writing is Sorkin’s niche and present in all of his great works, there are more than a few times in this movie where it just doesn’t sit right. For example, when the defense finds a tape of Hayden supposedly starting the riots, they grill him about his speech which animated the crowd and the events that directly followed. Even though this is an incredibly tense sequence, which occurs in the middle of the night, each character delivers seemingly perfect dialogue, going back and forth with no imperfections. This is a captivating scene, don’t get me wrong, but looking back on it, a deeper level of emotion isn’t being reached because of the writing.

Despite the unnatural dialogue, this movie still managed to keep me invested throughout each narrative twist and the riveting portrayal of the events stayed with me hours after I had finished watching. Overall, I give this movie a 3.8/5.

While this is a great movie to watch on its own, it is especially important in our political climate of activism. The current outrage at our broken criminal justice system is evocative of the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s. While the blatant racism and injustice, which could be seen in Hoffman’s ruling, isn’t as present in today’s courts and public opinion, the system which held this behavior up still remains. 

Two scenes are particularly poignant in today’s America. The first scene follows the riots in which protest leaders slip past police barricades to stand outside a restaurant full of politicians. 

Police catch up to them and slowly remove their name tags and badges. They then initiate a fight, beating the protesters. This scene is uncomfortably familiar in a time when videos of police brutality continuously surface. The second scene requires a bit more context. The prosecution originally charged eight people for crossing state lines to incite a conflict—the eighth being Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, though he only attended the protest to give a short speech. Unfortunately, Seale was unrepresented in trial due to his lawyer’s recent surgery. Hoffman began the trial anyway, requesting that one of the seven’s lawyers represented him instead. As Seale disagreed with these unconstitutional terms, he called Hoffman a “rotten racist pig, fascist liar.” Hoffman then ordered Seale to be bound, gagged and chained to his chair (though this was only shown in one scene,  Seale was bound and gagged for three days in real-life). The disturbing image of a black man gagged in an American courtroom, stripped of his right to a fair trial while staring down his racist judge is unfortunately symbolic of the continued injustice in one of the most fundamental institutions in our country.