The Trial of the Chicago 7 Movie Review: Aaron Sorkin’s impressive Netflix film delivers Terrific Marriage of Time and Courtroom Drama

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella
Streaming on: Netflix

A few weeks before the US elections, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of The Chicago 7 takes us back in time in the United States in 1968 and 1969; it tells a very American story about the Vietnam War and the justice system.

The story of seven men, each of whom was involved in a protest against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, arrested for conspiring to provoke a riot. The protesters were part of the larger anti-Vietnam War movement that was roiling America in the late 1960s. The American President, the Democrat Lyndon B Johnson, was being strongly criticised for enduring with an increasingly absurd war, one that was claiming the lives of numerous young American soldiers. The men came from different backgrounds and belonged to separate organisations. Still, in the eyes of the prosecution, they were all the same members of the ‘radical left’.

On August 28, 1968, violence broke out during a face-off between protesters and the Chicago police. In 1969, Richard Nixon was sworn as the new American President. Under him, the Justice Department set out to make an example of the eight activists arrested for allegedly inciting the violence.

The Trial unfolded in 1969 before a deeply prejudiced judge, Julius Hoffman. One of the eight defendants, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, came in for particularly harsh treatment from Hoffman – to the degree that he was bound and suppressed during the Trial. A failure for Seale was later declared, bringing down the number of defendants to seven.

The best courtroom dramas in their skeletal frameworks function as plays. They are law as theatre. Consider Witness for the ProsecutionJudgment at Nuremberg, or Anatomy of a Murder. The lawyers are like actors and writers in this high-wire live performance, the jury gets to be the audience and participants in the story unfolding, and the judge is like the director piloting the whole thing. They are most riveting when a crafty lawyer tries to trap a witness in their lies or weaken their credibility. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, as the judge has already made his decision long before the final verdict comes in, the courtroom mechanics struggle to hold our attention the same way.

Sorkin’s film sees the world for what it is today: one unwilling to learn from the mistakes of history and thus doomed to repeat them. But it’s not the litmus test we ordered on a regressing society that has stalled, nay nullified, five decades of democratic progress. What ought to have been a fascinating clash of wits and ideologies amounts to little more than standard speechifying. In a year of large-scale social discontent and civil unrest, you would expect a harder-hitting accusation of the powers.

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