Front of house: ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ reintroduces a landmark case to today’s audience

Five men sit around a wooden table covered in papers.
Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows the trial of activists charged with inciting violence during the riots leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (Courtesy: Niko Tavernise of Netflix)

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.

Aaron Sorkin masterfully executed his second attempt at writing and directing with “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a witty, fast-paced drama documenting the trial of activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch) for attempting to incite violence during the riots leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 

They were initially joined by Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but Seale was later granted a mistrial, as he did not have access to a lawyer, and was not present for the latter half of the trial.

The main conflict of the film stemmed from the dissonance between the eight — later seven — activists on trial. Student activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis simply wanted to stay out of jail and didn’t see any merit in symbolic acts of contempt. Youth International Party activists — or “Yippies” — Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin disagreed and spent much of the trial verbally sparring with the judge and other members of the defense.

The arguments between the activists lent themselves to many of Sorkin’s characteristic dialogue devices, which some call “Sorkinisms.” The dialogue was tense, witty and packed with elaborately constructed metaphors. Strong’s, Baron Cohen’s and Redmayne’s performances stood out in their carrying of this dialogue. Redmayne’s line delivery was terse yet sympathetically anxious, while Baron Cohen and Strong maintained a lighthearted and sarcasm-packed dynamic. Much like the dialogue in Sorkin’s other works, it was unrealistic but entertaining to watch.

A man with long hair wearing a headband holds a bandana and has his arms outstreched.
Among the famous faces in Netflix’s “Trial of the Chicago 7,” Jeremy Strong portrays Jerry Rubin who was a social activist in the 60s and 70s. (Courtesy: Niko Tavernise of Netflix)

Otherwise, the film’s tone was mostly comical. The arguments between characters were filled with playful quips and cultural references that poked fun at the laid-back demeanor of many activists in the anti-war movement.

This is fairly accurate to what those interactions would have looked like. The spirit of the mid-20th century anti-war effort was playful. When the goal of a movement is to end violence, love and laughter become part of its praxis. Sorkin tapped into this spirit through both the film’s content and storytelling structure. Hoffman in particular made headlines for his humorous remarks and antics in the courtroom over the course of the trial, the impact of which was amplified by Baron Cohen’s fantastic performance.

Thankfully, the film knew where to draw the line. The third act tone shift came following the news of the murder of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). In the dialogue surrounding this news, witty remarks and comic interjections came to a halt. Upbeat music and fast-paced editing were exchanged for extended silence and somber shots. This was interrupted with a jarring courtroom scene in which Seale was violently mishandled by court marshalls, handling the racially charged aspects of the event with an appropriate sobriety.

Sorkin occasionally blurred the line between historical accuracy and dramatization. For instance, one of the courtroom scenes captured a moment in which the activists realized that many of the protesters they marched with were undercover police officers, one of which was a woman that became romantically involved with Rubin. This didn’t actually happen — all of the police officers involved in that operation were men. It did, however, yield a comical interaction between Rubin and prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). However, it didn’t detract from the most important historical aspects of the film.

Though some of the court dialogue was lifted verbatim from court documents, Sorkin also changed dialogue in some problematic aspects. When Hoffman was cross-examined in the film, he was asked if he had “contempt for his government.” He responded by saying he had faith in the government’s systems, just not in the people currently in power. This was a noticeably watered-down version of the statement he actually gave, in which he declared himself “an enemy of the state.” There were multiple other incidents in which Sorkin watered down the activists’ original statements, implying that he prioritized the film’s palatability to a more moderate audience over its accuracy.

Despite its shortcomings in this area, some of the historical accuracy in the film drove its relevance home. Many protests that occurred in the aftermath of racially charged police killings over the course of 2020culminated in violent confrontations between police and protesters. When those matters are brought before a court, the central question is the same as the one faced by the Chicago Seven: Was the level of violence reached in the protests mainly the fault of the police or the protesters? “The Trial of the Chicago 7” did a masterful and nuanced job of illustrating that it is, more often than not, the former. Sorkin showed and didn’t tell. We’re given every angle of the story and were shown how authorities spin events in their favor.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” like many historical dramas, dramatized the events it depicts in a way that detracts from what made the events meaningful. However, if cautiously viewed as a dramatized retelling of a particularly relevant case, it is a well-made film with incredible performances and storytelling. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a government and literature dual major from Chicago and loves everything to do with music, movies and books.

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