The Power of Protest
By Noah Gittell
Protesters are in the streets. The TV cameras are on. A clash with the police ensues, and after blood has been spilled, no one can agree on who instigated the violence. This scenario could describe America’s major cities in 2020, or the subject of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7”.
It’s a courtroom drama chronicling the legal case against anti-war activists who were arrested following a violent confrontation with the Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the terrific new film, Sorkin catches lightning in a bottle, blazingly connecting our past to our present, while crafting a winning argument for the power of protest.
It opens with a nifty montage. As the Vietnam War rages on, the Democrats nominate milquetoast candidate Hubert Humphrey for president. We are introduced to our protagonists, who share the goal of ending the war but differ on tactics. Among them are Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Ruben (Jeremy Strong), hippies who stage “happenings” to earn free media attention for their ideas. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), buttoned-up protesters with disdain for hippies like Hoffman; and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a Boy Scout leader and avowed pacifist who refused to fight even in World War II. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abudl-Mateen II) is also indicted with the group, although he was nowhere near the violence that occurred.
On the other side of the courtroom is a young prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has more sympathy for the defendants than his colleagues or the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Representing the establishment against which our defendants’ rebel, Judge Hoffman seems to suffer from both senility and an outright hostility towards them. There is little rhyme or reason to his eccentricities; he interrupts the prosecutor’s opening statement several times and overrules every single objection the defense offers over the course of the trial.
Facing a rigged system, Hoffman and Ruben engage the public, as well as the viewer, in a series of spectacles to both draw attention to the trial and highlight its absurdity. They wear police uniforms in the defendant’s box, banter with the frustrated judge, and hold provocative press conferences after each day. On the weekends, Hoffman cracks jokes onstage about the trial. Their lawyer, William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance), has the unenviable task of playing by the rules. It doesn’t get them far. The film persuasively argues that, in the face of a corrupt court, using the media to change people’s minds is a more likely path to success than arguing the facts of the case. It’s a view of the trial that aptly reflects life in 2020, when people on opposite sides of political debates can’t even draw from the same set of facts.
It’s also the perfect venue for Sorkin, whose penchant for political grandstanding and dramatic monologues was inspiring in “The West Wing” and “A Few Good Men” but seemed to have gone out of style by the time “The Newsroom” came around. He didn’t change. The times did. In the age of Donald Trump and “Veep”, there is little room for aspirational politics, but Sorkin found the one story in which it still works. The trial here is political theater from the start, with no hope for actual justice. For once, Sorkin can’t argue his way to deliverance, and as his protagonists turn the trial into spectacle, his penchant for histrionics bolsters their strategy.
The film is brought to life by a magnificent cast, led by Cohen. It’s easy to forget that the provocateur behind “Borat” (he’ll be seen in that film’s sequel later this month) is also a committed actor, and the British comedian perfectly captures Hoffman’s electrifying intelligence and penchant for absurdism. It’s a performance that will surely receive awards’ attention, as will Rylance’s simmering rage as the frustrated attorney. The rest of the cast fares just as well, especially Abudl-Mateen as Seale, who is only in part of the film but carries the burden of representing all Black voices in a story about police violence. It’s a weakness in the screenplay, but the actor makes it work.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is only Sorkin’s second film as director, after 2017’s uneven “Molly’s Game”, and he’s improved markedly as a director. His ease with the big set pieces remains intact — especially affecting is the film’s re-enactment of the protesters’ encounter with the police — but he is also able to tell his story from multiple perspectives while holding onto his argument. It’s the work of a mature filmmaker who understands his audience, and a story the world needs to be reminded of.
Photo by AwardsWatch