Netflix’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Is Hands-down the Film of the Year

Featuring more Jews than an AIPAC conference, Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,' a recreation of the 1969-70 court case, is an instant crowd-pleasing (and stirring) classic, with great performances by the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Rylance

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen as "Yippies" Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in Netflix's "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen as "Yippies" Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in Netflix's "The Trial of the Chicago 7."Credit: NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020.
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

“So, this is what a courtroom looks like,” marvels Tom Cruise’s character in Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men,” the 1992 film based on Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway hit. It’s a sense of awe the acclaimed TV screenwriter presumably shares, given that both his movies as a writer-director revolve around courtrooms.

True, the courtroom appeared only fleetingly in his directorial debut – the criminally underrated “Molly’s Game” in 2017. But it takes center stage in Sorkin’s sophomore effort “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which for me is hands-down the most entertaining film of the year and premieres on Netflix this Friday.

Yes, call off the search: I’ve found the movie we all desperately need to lift our spirits in this otherwise wretched year.

I’ll admit it, I’m easy to please when it comes to movies: I just need them to make me laugh, cry and think. (Okay, only two in the case of “Schindler’s List.”) But “Chicago 7” delivers that and much, much more.

Despite all the film’s accomplishments, perhaps the most incredible – and damning – thing is that it has taken 50 years for anyone to bring this remarkable story to the large or small screen. (True, the trial did feature in the 2000 biopic about Abbie Hoffman, “Steal This Movie,” but in that film it was just one crazy chapter among many in Hoffman’s chaotic life.)

The great news, though, is that in the same way Ava DuVernay raised awareness about the Central Park Five with “When They See Us” in 2019 and Steve McQueen is about to perform a similar service for the Mangrove Nine in the upcoming “Mangrove” (and the fact few people have heard of the Mangrove Nine shows how important these movies are), Sorkin is now bringing the trial The New York Times once called “the shame of American justice” to a very wide audience.

Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden and Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler in "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Credit: Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

And what a story it is. These are the basic facts: In the summer of 1968, thousands of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators converged on Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, protesting presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey and the party’s continued support of a war that would eventually leave an estimated 3 million people dead (including about 58,000 U.S. soldiers).

Events reached a boiling point on August 28 when some 23,000 law enforcement officers (including 6,000 soldiers and 5,000 members of the National Guard) waded into the 15,000 protesters gathered in Lincoln Park, the event witnessed live by millions on TV.

The shocking scenes caused the Democrats to consider investigating police brutality, but when Richard Nixon won the November election and assumed control of the White House, the focus soon shifted to the protesters.

That’s how, in March 1969, eight men – Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, anarchistic “Yippies” Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and anti-war protesters Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner and John Froines – were charged with conspiring to cross state lines with “intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry out a riot.” All this despite the fact that the men had collectively never been in the same room their entire lives.

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" director Aaron Sorkin in 2017. A man of many words.Credit: Willy Sanjuan/AP

Cracked skulls

If you’re unaware of the full story and are currently thinking “So why is it not called ‘The Trial of the Chicago 8,’” that’s one of the many revelations I won’t spoil here.

What I will tell you is that Sorkin did a great job condensing a trial that lasted nearly five months and whose transcript totaled 22,000 pages into a 130-minute movie, all while simultaneously squeezing in brilliantly staged recreations of the so-called riots – I say so-called because having your skull cracked open by a police officer while protesting in a park doesn’t qualify you as a rioter.

Of course, we’ve always known Sorkin is a brilliant storyteller: “The West Wing” remains a pinnacle of 21st-century television and I bow to no one in my love of “Sports Night.” What we couldn’t have predicted, though, is how he’s such a skilled filmmaker, especially given his reputation for cramming more words into a screenplay than humanly possible (ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am now holding up a copy of “The Social Network”).

After all, this is a writer for whom language matters – heck, the first lines of dialogue in “A Few Good Men” see Demi Moore’s legal naval officer fretting about a potential grammatical error, and there’s a similar scene in “Chicago 7” involving vague noun modifiers.

But his films as writer-director never veer into radio drama territory, the visual element being just as important as the spoken word (but yes, there are still lots of them).

Both his films fizzle with energy, aided by brilliant performances and show-stopping scenes: Jessica Chastain, Kevin Costner and Idris Elba all get memorable monologues in “Molly’s Game,” while Michael Keaton has a nomination-worthy cameo in “Chicago 7.”

It’s unfair to single Keaton out, though, because “Chicago 7” is full of wonderful characters and performers. In truth, the history books provided Sorkin with an abundance of charismatic characters: Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, for instance, really were larger-than-life figures who were determined to make a mockery of the legal system – exemplified by the time they turned up in court wearing black judicial robes.

After that stunt in the actual trial, Hoffman started cursing the judge, a fellow Jew called Julius Hoffman (“You schtunk! Schande for the goyim, huh?” – “You stinker! A front for the goys, huh?”) – though, sadly, Sorkin doesn’t include either those Yiddish epithets or Abbie Hoffman comparing him to Hitler in the film.

Indeed, the original trial’s strong Jewish element generally goes unspoken here: As well as defendants Abbie Hoffman, Rubin and Weiner, William Kunstler and his fellow defense attorney Leonard Weinglass were also Jewish, as of course was the 74-year-old judge (an Ashkenazi elite-type played by Frank Langella to annoying perfection).

Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Not only did Abbie Hoffman curse at the judge in Yiddish during the trial, he also compared him to Hitler. Credit: Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX /PARAMOUN

Given its tight focus on the trial itself, the film also makes no reference to Jewish Democratic Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s speech at the convention in which he decried “Gestapo tactics being used in the city of Chicago,” nor Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s alleged response to that: “Fuck you, you Jew son-of-a-bitch.”

Sacha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abbie Hoffman, because while he may not quite nail the iconic activist’s Boston-area accent, he embodies the mischievous nature of a rebellious soul who was always performing – whether at a D.C. protest trying to cause the Pentagon to levitate or blowing kisses to the jury in the Chicago courtroom (just one of many instances where he was found guilty of being in contempt of court).

Jeremy Strong plays Rubin as a likable stoner schlub – the latter is a little unfair, I’d suggest, since in real life it was Rubin who recognized the importance of stunts to gain media attention (though it’s true he was a complete pothead – maybe he picked that habit up during his 18 months in Israel in the early ’60s).

Of the other defendants, Eddie Redmayne gets some of the showiest “Sorkin” scenes as Tom Hayden (fun fact – Hayden subsequently married Jane Fonda and their son, Troy Garity, went on to play his dad in “Steal This Movie”).

John Carroll Lynch also steals plenty of scenes as the Boy Scout leader-turned-peace activist Dellinger. But my favorite character was probably Kunstler (Mark Rylance), who butts heads with Judge Hoffman so often, his cumulative “contempt of court” sentence by the end of the trial was over four years. (He never actually served any jail time, but would go on to defend Rabbi Meir Kahane’s assassin in 1991.)

In truth, there’s so much material here that “Chicago 7” could easily have been turned into a four- or six-part miniseries. But it’s easy to see why Sorkin honed it down to a two-hour movie in order to attract the widest possible audience.

Alas, most of us are being cheated of the opportunity to see it on the big screen due to cinemas being closed – but given the amount of time I spent uproariously laughing at Hoffman and Rubin’s antics, that might be for the best. Otherwise, it could have been a super-spreader event rivaled only by those at the White House.

Abbie Hoffman clutching a toy bomb during a press conference in New York, just prior to his trial starting in Chicago, September 1969. Credit: AP

Spoiler zone alert

I was fascinated to see some of the changes Sorkin makes for dramatic and other less obvious reasons. You may want to stop at this point if you don’t want to read spoilers about the film (as long as you promise to return after seeing it).

So, here are my spoiler points:

1. The only creative decision I can’t fathom is why prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented in such a sympathetic light. Schultz is shown as a decent family man with apparent compassion for the defendants and horror at the way one of them in particular is treated in the courtroom.

Yet according to reports from the time and the court transcripts I’ve read, Schultz was actually an attack dog (The New York Times court reporter referred to him as a “pit bull”) who was relentless in his pursuit of a guilty verdict. I just can’t see what was gained by turning him into a more likable character: It would be like a film in 2070 presenting Attorney General William Barr as a warm and cuddly soul.

2. The movie’s most shocking moment – in which Judge Hoffman orders guards to take Black Panther leader Seale (a wonderful Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) out of the courtroom and beat him up, before bringing him back gagged and in chains – really did happen (Kunstler described it as “medieval torture,” and Seale sat in the court, gagged and chained to a chair, for several days).

However, I think if Sorkin were to shoot the film again today, he’d incorporate another crucial real-life scene: When the battered Seale was first brought back into the courtroom, his gag wasn’t fully functioning and he could still utter sounds. His first barely audible words? “I can’t speak,” offering a horribly topical resonance with the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale in "The Trial of the Chicago 7," when a judge literally silenced the Black voice.Credit: Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

3. “Chicago 7” has (at least) three key moments that play fast and loose with the facts for the sake of drama. I can understand why Sorkin did it, because despite all the crazy events at the actual trial, it never offered a grandstanding “Hollywood moment” à la Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” scene in “A Few Good Men.”

That’s why we get a fictitious scene in which the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark (Keaton), tells the court the previous Justice Ministry had ruled out any suggestion of conspiracy to riot. Now, as far as I can ascertain from the court transcript, while Clark was indeed called to the stand as a defense witness, the prosecution and judge didn’t let him utter a single word in the courtroom.

Then there’s the denouement, where Sorkin takes a small moment that happened in court at an earlier time and turns it into the showstopping grand finale, ending the proceedings on a victorious note for the defendants and audience alike.

I can completely understand why he chose to do this, but it does, ironically, deprive the defendants of their “day in court”: All seven delivered powerful closing speeches after their verdicts were announced, none of which we get to hear. (I’d strongly recommend Jon Wiener’s book “Conspiracy in the Streets,” which has their actual statements, including Hoffman’s description that prison “is not a nice place for a Jewish boy to be with a college education. I’m sure my mother would say that.”)

Minor quibbles aside, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” really is a terrific movie, disturbingly topical with its depictions of police brutality and efforts to silence the Black voice. (I watched it a second time with my teenage kids and was heartened to see how blown away they were by the film too.)

It called to mind Abbie Hoffman’s quote from April 1989, a week before he killed himself while suffering one of his frequent bouts of depression. Looking back at the trial, he reflected: “We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong – and we were right.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is out now on Netflix.

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