Writer and Director Aaron Sorkin is definitely one of the most prolific creators of the last two decades, writing some of the best shows and movies of the 21st Century like The West Wing and The Social Network. So when it was announced that he was writing and directing a movie about the infamous 1969 trial about the Chicago Riots, it was safe to say that anticipation was high.
In 1969, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, and 5 other activists were arrested and put on trial for conspiracy to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention protesting the Vietnam War. There were no clear signs of a conspiracy and yet they are charged anyways and face an uphill battle against a rigged system. With a lawyer like William Kunsler defending the 7 individuals, they must find a way to get through to the jury that the riots were not the fault of protestors but the police. But it seems this “political trial” has already decided the fates of everyone involved.
Presenting a film about real life public figures can be extremely tough if you do not have the right actors involved with the project. Luckily, The Trial of the Chicago 7 had the cast to play the real life people, with particular standouts being Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale. Cohen absolutely stole the show as Hoffman in the film, portraying him as a watered down version of Borat. And apparently Abbie Hoffman was exactly that in most cases being more of a comedic character in a heavy situation. But that is not to say Hoffman was not a smart man, in fact he was probably the smartest man in the room with his prolific vocabulary and social awareness, making him arguably the most dangerous man present.
Other performances such as Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale are just as critical as Cohen’s take on Abbie Hoffman. Abdul-Mateen II plays Seale as a patient man running out of patience as he desperately tries to make sure he is getting as fair a trial as the other defendants. As his continued annoyances grow with the trial, so does his resentment for both the judge and his situation, making him a bomb that could go off at any moment. Then there is Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the primary lawyer that defends the Chicago 7. Rylance is similar to Abdul-Mateen’s performance in the film; the only difference is that it feels Kunstler has a shorter temper compared to Seale as demonstrated in several scenes where the whole case is working against him.
When it comes to historical dramas or period pieces, it is very hit or miss when it comes to historical accuracy, whether that be omitted facts or misrepresenting characters compared to their historic counterpart. However, The Trial of the Chicago 7 does get several of its facts and characterizations correct though such as Bobby Seale not having legal representation throughout the trial which only adds to the confusion and frustration of the legal proceeding. Not to mention when Seale finally does snap, the judge has him taken in the back and then brought back out tied up and gagged. You would figure an incident like that would not fly in any courtroom EVER, but it actually happened to Mr. Seale during the trial. Crazy right?! Also characters like Abbie Hoffman were in fact very much like Borat as I described earlier and mostly just trying to make a show out of the trial. He agitates the judge whenever he could and even came dressed to court as the judge at one point.
When watching this film, it felt like it could've easily taken place in today’s time. As at the time of release, the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform protests were at its peak with the tragedies of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor happening earlier in 2020. This wasn’t just a trial to showcase an insane time in history, but was definitely a reflection on how little things have changed over the decades and why protesting needs to exist.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a great example of how two different time periods can look very similar under the right circumstances. But it is also a fantastic film chalked full of great dialogue and terrific performances, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen’s Academy Award nominated performance as Abbie Hoffman. Even though the direction plays fast and loose, the writing and performances as well as the modern day parallels more than overshadow the shortcomings. Not only is this an important film about a very tense time in history, but a rewatchable one as it remains entertaining and engrossing from start to finish.