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The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Courtroom dramas are my jam.

There is an electricity in watching professionals expertly operate the machinery of their industry, whether that's investigative journalists, detectives, lawyers or politicians. Writer and second-time director Aaron Sorkin is the best in the business for penning this kind of efficiency into his screenplays, and Netflix's new procedural The Trial of the Chicago 7 certainly plays to these strengths.

The group of men who make up the Chicago 7 travelled to the Democratic National Congress in Chicago in 1968, from various backgrounds and organisations, to protest America's continuing war in Vietnam. That much is undisputed. The key accusation they face in the courtroom is that this journey was made with the specific intention of escalating protests into something more violent: to conspire to riot. Academy Award winner Mark Rylance plays the defence attorney charged with keeping the band of misfits in check - these guys are would-be leaders of the revolution and don't easily hold their tongues. Is this a fair trial, or are they the casualties of a political vendetta?

Not 7, but 8 men sit as defendants. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is the leader of The Black Panthers and is facing the same charges, despite having no legal representation in court. He insists this is wrong, but is denied action and further prevented from representing himself. As the court spirals out of control, it takes a truly shocking act of barbarism from the presiding judge (one of the most uncomfortable images in the film) before action is taken.

Although the protests themselves make up a small percentage of screen time, the chronology is revealed to us in a series of flashbacks, expanding our lens throughout the course of their trial. These action sequences are intercut with flashes of real-life still images, lending weight and authenticity to the dramatization. I have to say, however, that the direction of these scenes felt a little off. The wide shots look a bit too much like a movie set, the extras look a bit too much like extras, and the plot developments seem a little too contrived.

Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct this feature before it was tripped up by the 2007 writer's strike. In fact, Heath Ledger was due to meet him for the part of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), a day after his tragic death. I strongly suspect that Spielberg would have nailed that feet-on-the-ground feeling during the protests and captured the full sweep of emotions experienced by the protesters.

It is surprising that this film has been in development for over a decade - the exploration of these issues is powerfully timely. The Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have brought to light those same accusations of police-incited violence, unnecessary escalation, and abuse of power. Civil rights movements are still not being given the right to peaceful assembly and protest without sabotage. 'Law enforcement' is still choosing to infiltrate and militarize rather than protecting their subject's right to free speech.

Stories of social justice do easily slip into moments of self-righteousness and grandstanding, telling you how you should feel about a situation, rather telling the facts and letting you decide for yourself. For the most part, Chicago 7 avoids this. It's tempting to think that the Judge Julius Hoffman, menacingly played by Frank Langela, is a cartoonishly evil force and an invention of a writer looking for easy victories. In reality, the filmmakers actually omitted certain events because they thought the viewer would not believe just how bad he was! One jaw-dropping example: when four jurors initially refused to convict the defendants, he informed them that he would not accept any other conclusion except one in which the jury decided that the defendants were guilty. What a dick. Although it's unclear if they used this particular phrase, 78% of Chicago attorneys also had an unfavourable opinion of him, even before the trial depicted in this film.

As you might expect, the star-studded ensemble are good across the board. The real standout performances here come from Rylance, Langela, and the ever-charismatic Sacha Baron Cohen. I have found some of the comedians previous dramatic performances a bit overwrought and one-note (looking at you Les Miserables). This time, Cohen's portrayal of alternative leader Abbie Hoffman (no relation, we are assured) perfectly rides the line between comic relief and a larger-than-life, but essentially believable, character. Archive footage shows that Abbie really did wear his heart on his sleeve and enjoyed provoking people with his sardonic wit.

A Few Good Men this is not. However, Sorkin has created here a story that seems to be timeless in its subject, in a way that his previous screenplays can't claim to be. Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and The Social Network are all placed very definitively at a single point in history. Only time will tell if long-term relevance translates to long-term popularity for The Trial of the Chicago 7. I for one thought it was an entertaining 2 hours and would recommend it as such.

Verdict: 41/56 charges of contempt of court


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