“The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” October 18, 2020, Netflix. It has been forever since we’ve seen a movie, as we’ve been watching various series on TV. However, I read about this film in the NYT and in a friend’s comment on Facebook from Denmark. Both B and I really looked forward to it. As the title indicates, this Adam Sorkin history/fiction chronicles the story of, and the people involved in, the conflict outside the Democratic Convention of 1968. It is the story of a government hell-bent on inducing violence and punishing all who oppose it. It is also a tale of the importance of who is in charge. The Dems were not going to charge and stage a trial. Nixon’s In-Justice Department conjured a conspiracy to validate a police riot. Hence the Chicago Seven, an agglomeration of disparate ideological actors and forces, some of whom had never even met one another, yet they wound up charged with conspiracy. And it was really 7 + 1, the 8th defendant being, Black Panther Party Chairman, Bobby Seale.
Excellent acting abounds in this film, and Sorkin’s script allows them to shine. Mark Ryland is again brilliant, this time as attorney William Kuntsler, as we watch him evolve rapidly in and out of the courthouse, becoming even more radicalized by the corruption of the legal system itself. Sasha Baron Cohen is again shockingly wonderful and complex, albeit accent challenged, as Abbie Hoffman in both his lunacy, his thoughtful intelligence, and his profound insight. And yes, Abbie was like that. Frank Langella nails the smug, sanctimonious, incompetent and profoundly biased Judge Julius Hoffman—no relation to Abbie—just the way I remember him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s US prosecutor, Richard Schultz is, on the other hand, portrayed as a vastly more complex actor than the tool of injustice I remember. An overly kind representation? Jeremy Strong, however, evokes a deeply humanized and goofy, appealing and truly stand-up Jerry Rubin. Yaha Abdul Mateen II creates a genuine and totally believable Bobby Seale as a person and a political leader, while Michael Keaton captures a brusk yet thoughtful Ramsey Clark taking his first steps forward as he reinvents himself as a radical activist. Eddie Redmane creates a very believable Tom Hayden, the SDS leader seeking a peaceful speaking of truth to power and caught up in the violence of these events. Meanwhile, John Carroll Lynch’s Dave Dellinger is charmingly normal as the non-violent activist adult/Boy Scout leader trying to find a way to remain politically honest, forestall violence, and remain true to his own code. Alex Sharpe’s pre-Divine Light Rennie Davis is touching in his sincerity, while Kelvin Harrison’s Fred Hampton brings that slaughtered martyr, assassinated by the Chicago Police, to life.
So many, so young. The perfidy of the American governments (national down to local), the corrupt criminality of the police in their murderous violence and perjury that matches the depravity of the national Department of Justice’s violence and dishonesty are evident in the events and the trial. Ironically and paradoxically, this was truly the state writ lage bringing the war back home.
I do, however, have several briefs that tempered my pleasure and appreciation of this piece, and some of those are inherent in the subject. It is so male, and it cannot be otherwise. Yet that bothered me despite that. It was what it was, in that regard, but it nonetheless felt wrong. At a deeper level, even as he gets so much right, this film should have been much more were it more cinematically raw and less glossy. It cleaned up these characters for the screen and made them more naïve than they were. And while the trial is the focus, I wish the bigger sense of the opposition to the war and the thousands in the streets had somehow been palpable.
And last, and certainly y least, the film beginnings with a blatant error and returns to it several times. The first draft lottery for the war took place on December 1, 1969, well after Chicago and after the trial began. The film portrays it happening much earlier. A minor point, to be sure, but a liberty taken with the facts.