The courtroom docudrama does what it set out to do: uplift, inspire & make little of an impression.
Despite it being among the most popular TV dramas of the late 90s and early 00s, The West Wing, written by Aaron Sorkin, helped set the stage for the sort of namby-pamby liberalism that leads people to believe that all you need is an inspiring speech or a snappy #hashtag to change the course of human events. Given his penchant for having characters speechify rather than actually speak, it’s a wonder it took him so long to get to the Chicago 7, the travesty of justice that led to such prominent anti-war activists as Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman being convicted of multiple federal conspiracy charges.
Better late than never, I guess, as he’s written and directed The Trial of the Chicago 7, which, in the Before Times, would have gotten wide theatrical release and probably mocked for being shameless Oscar bait. On a small screen, it’s a harmlessly bland docudrama, competently directed and buoyed by a handful of powerhouse performances, occasionally zippy dialogue, and some excellent wigs.
In 1969, Hayden (played here by Eddie Redmayne), Hoffman (an excellent Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and four other activists were arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after clashing with Chicago police. An eighth defendant, Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was railroaded into the case, not even present at the riot, and not permitted to represent himself as counsel. A whole separate film could be made just about the outrageous treatment Seale received, including literally being bound and gagged in the courtroom.
Regrettably, after his portion of the case is declared a mistrial, he disappears about halfway through the film, which is a shame, because Abdul-Mateen II is electrifying in his role. What’s left is a fairly standard courtroom drama, in which William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), attorney for the remaining defendants, repeatedly clashes with Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who’s so hilariously uninterested in equal justice that he can’t even be bothered to get the other defense attorney’s last name right.
That’s even before the blatant jury tampering, and near-constant contempt charges if Kunstler or the defendants so much as sneeze too loud. Well, maybe “hilariously” isn’t the right word, considering Judge Hoffman’s antagonistic behavior is accurately depicted here, and was specifically pointed to as among the reasons the real-life Chicago 7’s convictions were later overturned. Langella’s pinched “who farted?” expression whenever he addresses the defendants adds a weirdly comic touch to the whole thing.
It’s a harmlessly bland docudrama, competently directed and buoyed by a handful of powerhouse performances, occasionally zippy dialogue, and some excellent wigs.
The real heart of the story is Hayden, a straight arrow Boy Scout who hopes to run for political office someday (and have sex with Jane Fonda, presumably), and Abbie Hoffman, the firebrand ur-hippie who’s at least as smart and funny as he is pompous and deeply irritating, learning to see past their differences and understand that they both have the same goal. They simply just have different ways of going about it. It’s not quite “reaching across the aisle,” since Hayden and Hoffman are, in fact, on the same side, just too stubborn and arrogant to acknowledge it. Regardless, it does feel a little overly simplistic, and very far away from the world we’re in now.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is actually at its best outside the courtroom, particularly during the events leading up to the riot. In contrast, the courtroom scenes, which consist mostly of Kunstler and the defendants going back and forth with Judge Hoffman in increasingly heated exchanges, while prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) watches with a furrowed brow, grow repetitious after a while. As a prestige drama, it mostly works, albeit in a dry, unremarkable way. That the actors, particularly Cohen, Abdul-Mateen II, Strong and Rylance, clearly cared about the material, and spent time studying their characters, prevent it from being a flat made for TV quality film
Like Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, The Trial of the Chicago 7 serves at least as much as a parallel for current events as a docudrama set in the past. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to make the audience feel, however, since we’re still being warned, with more dangerous disinformation than ever before, about the “radical left.” Leftist activists are still being railroaded into trumped up riot and property damage charges. When there are prominent shots of cops taking their badges and name tags off before attacking protesters, are we supposed to be inspired by the protesters’ bravery, or do we sigh resignedly and think “Nothing’s changed at all”?
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in limited theatrical release & premieres on Netflix October 16th.