We are living in unprecedented times, or so it feels. Physically, quite obviously, but also ideologically, what with the increasing acceptance of extremism in our society. That is, until we come across a piece of art that catches us by the scruff of our necks and points our gaze to a time in history that eerily mimics the present. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly that, and much more.
This movie has been in the making for about 14 years, with Steven Spielberg initially set to direct. Spielberg, by his own account, has always been drawn to this subject and it is this interest that made him, in 2006, call on Aaron Sorkin to write the screenplay. Thankfully, for all of us and the makers themselves, the movie took a long time to be made. The world is at a much different place than where it was 14 years ago, for better or for worse, which serves the movie well. And to think of the (possibly) subdued impact it would have had had it released any earlier!
The Trial of the Chicago 7, also directed by Sorkin, is based on the real life trial of eight revolutionaries (by their own account) who mobilised American youth to protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago the drafting of their countrymen for the Vietnam War, which they believed was not something the government should be dipping their toes in and, more importantly, which had by then had taken well over 100,000 American lives. They were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots, even though most of the eight had never met each other prior to that.
The eight were Tom Hayden (portrayed by the ever reliable Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen showing restraint with aplomb), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, who you would not believe played Kendall Roy in Succession), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II bringing a certain idealism you’d tip your hat to). Bobby Seale’s trial is severed from the other seven, thanks to the judge’s blatant racism and therefore, the trial came to be known as the Trial of the Chicago Seven.
The plot is simple: the eight are charged with conspiracy (two or more persons coming together to carry out an illegal act) by the sitting government and the trial begins with the odds stacked against them. A movie generally is supposed to have a three-act structure, Setup, Confrontation and the Resolution. TTCS doesn’t quite have this in the sense that as a viewer, you subconsciously know what is going to happen irrespective of your prior knowledge of the trial. You know the government will pull out all the stops to ensure the dissenters are punished, you know there will be near-impossible idealism displayed by the protagonists and you also know they will eventually be punished. Sorkin knows this and instead infuses the three-act structure with the philosophy of the movie.
The authorities act against the good of the public to further their agendas/political standing making some of the youth angry and leading them to protest against the injustice.
Sorkin steers the screenplay masterfully in such a way that slowly but surely you feel strangled, much like the protagonists, and almost reach the nihilistic point of view that no matter what, the people in power always prevail. Scene after scene, right from the overt racist gagging of Bobby Seale (which is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, even if only a softer depiction from what really happened) to the judge (played by an inimitable Frank Langella) dismissing the former Attorney General’s testimony to Hayden inadvertently leading the protestors to a riot by mucking up possessive pronouns, Sorkin pushes you towards the edge of the cliff that is hope, staring down at despair.
When Abbie Hoffman takes the stand and utters his final words, “Give me a moment, will you, friend? I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” you almost certainly know they do not have a tangible defence especially with the whole governmental machinery against them. The dialogue, while it does make you want to get up and cheer (and make you miss the theatres where that indeed was possible and cathartic), is in itself sort of flawed because any law requires that for conviction there needs to be mens rea, which translates to guilty mind. You know Abbie was grasping at straws there, just like we are.
The most profound moment comes after, when, given a chance to be ‘remorseful, respectful and brief’ while giving his final statement, Hayden instead reads out the 4,752 names of the soldiers who lost their lives from the day these eight were arrested. It is an important moment not because of its rousing nature or the dramatic closure it brings to the movie but because it underscores the two basic philosophical fulcra of any revolution, something which we’ve always known: every life counts, and the onus is on us, always us.
It is quite simply put, an elaborate and able endorsement of democracy, as it was intended to be.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.