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Film Review: Trial of the Chicago 7

18 October 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Miram Blakemore-Hoy reviews Netflix’s timely new legal drama...

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Running time: 130 minutes

To start with, I didn’t know much about the historical events that this film is based on and had only the haziest knowledge of what might happen. Everyone’s heard of the Vietnam War, and most people should know that after at least ten years of conflict and scores of deaths of young American soldiers, a lot of US citizens felt angry, betrayed and desperately wanted the war to end. So began the demonstrations and protests, followed by the riots. This is the story of a notorious trial held against seven (technically eight) protesters who took part in the Chicago demonstration of 1968. On one hand it might feel like events that took place just over fifty years ago aren’t going to be that compelling or relevant to people today but that’s where you would be oh-so wrong. In fact, as the film progresses, it becomes painfully apparent that we have more in common with the 1969-ers than we do with anyone from the eighties or nineties.  

As the trial starts it seems surprising to be taken straight into the courtroom, and there is a feeling that this film could be stuffy or boring, but that feeling very quickly passes. As the courtroom drama unfolds so do the events on the streets. It also becomes obvious that there is more to the trial than meets the eye, political mind games are being played by politicians, and American citizens who were in the wrong place at the right time are being used as scapegoats.

In an era where it feels like ordinary citizens are being used as pawns to wage ludicrous political wars, the events of 1969 really don’t seem so very far removed

The Chicago 7 are made up of members of different groups who only had the protest as common ground, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, part of the infamous Yippies (the common nickname for the Youth International Party), Tom Hayden, one of the Students for a Democratic Society, and Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panthers. By being lumped together, these very different activists have to find a way to work as one unit despite very different attitudes and ways of working. Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as Abbie Hoffman is a slam dunk, while Eddie Redmayne’s on great form as Hayden. But it's Mark Rylance’s excellent performance as lawyer William Kunstler that really brings the film together, especially when sparring against Frank Langella’s despicable Judge Julius Hoffman.

There’s one scene in particular I have to mention. After consistently displayed gross prejudice and discrimination against Bobby for the entirety of the trial, where he is repeatedly denied the right to representation, one of the hardest moments of the film - and there are a few - comes when Judge Hoffman orders security guards to “deal with” Bobby Seale “as he should be dealt with”. Watching a free man being dragged into an American law court, bound and gagged, was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever watched. The worst part is the loathsome familiarity that goes hand in hand with actions such as this.  

More than ever, in an era where it feels like ordinary citizens are being used as pawns to wage ludicrous political wars, the events of 1969 really don’t seem so very far removed - and it’s enough to make you think about the consequences of what happens when a democratic state tries to crush the prevalent public opinion. 

Did you know? Aaron Sorkin wrote the initial script for the film in 2007, with Steven Spielberg intending to direct. Sacha Baron Cohen was a part of the cast from the start, but at the time, Will Smith and Heath Ledger were also both in talks to star in the film.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available now on Netflix

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