In September 1969, seven members of the radical left were lumped together and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot; the charges related to anti-Vietnam War and countercultural protests held in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. An eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (played here by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was also bundled into this “all-star team” of revolutionaries by Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell. Seale, the national chairman of the Black Panther Party, was only in Chicago for a few hours to give a speech, but his presence in the courtroom was designed to scare the jury into handing out convictions all round.
It would be impossible to make a dour courtroom drama from the six-month trial that unfurled. Reality TV arguably began here, as politics and law descended into a three-ring circus while the whole world was watching. All the same, writer/director Aaron Sorkin fashioned an especially propulsive thriller. Structurally nimble, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 hops between the courtroom case, the rivalries between the seven outside of the dock (they are free on bail) and events leading up to the protests in August ’68. The infamous clashes between protestors and the Chicago police and the National Guard, meanwhile, are potently restaged in the actual locations, with archive footage spliced in for added gut-punch.
Heavyweight doesn’t begin to do justice to this cast: the aforementioned Abdul-Mateen as Seale; Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, leader of Students for a Democratic Society; Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as, respectively, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, frontmen of the Youth International Party; and John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, heading up the Mobilization To End The War In Vietnam. And that’s just some of the defendants. Mark Rylance is defence lawyer William Kunstler; Joseph Gordon-Levitt prosecutor Richard Schultz; and Frank Langella oversees all as Judge Julius Hoffman, who allows for jury tampering and the suppression of key evidence while tossing out contempt-of-court rulings like toxic confetti.
It is Judge Hoffman, and Nixon’s Republican government, who clearly harbour the contempt – for these defendants, for freedom of speech and even for freedom of thought, should it threaten to upturn the status quo. It makes for an emotionally tough watch – though an exhilarating one too, given the torque of Sorkin’s talk. What really resonates are the shocking parallels to the current political landscape, the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that were met this summer with tear gas.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix now. Be sure to check out the other best Netflix movies to watch right now.