In August 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was transformed into a political powder keg as peaceful demonstrations turned into riots pitting police against protesters. Eight men were singled out as the ringleaders of the fracas, and the world watched on as this rag-tag group of counter-culturalists faced the wrath of the federal government in a court battle that shook the very foundations of US democracy.
Courtroom dramas often make the mistake of dragging viewers into a quagmire of ethical debate and long-winded legal-ese, leaving even the most intelligent filmgoer struggling to keep up. In the case of ‘The Chicago 7’, a lesser filmmaker may have focused on the action-packed riot incident itself. Aaron Sorkin, Oscar-winning screenwriter-turned-director, is no lesser filmmaker. His background in sharply witty political television and film make him the ideal candidate for spicing up what could have been a dull courtroom drama and giving it a timely counter-culture message strongly resonant today.
Many critics have seen this message as preachy in the current political climate. They’ve also decried Sorkin’s ‘pretentious’ writing. But these critics have missed the point entirely. ‘The Chicago 7’ is satirising how we treat the people who inspire cultural change. The men tried by the federal government for inciting violence at the Democratic National Convention were reduced to figureheads by the media. Because of this we don’t know much about what drove the people behind their public personas. The parallels between the BLM movement and this social movement are also obvious, making the film timely and politically relevant without needing any heavy-handed comparisons between then and now.
One of the most impressive elements of ‘The Chicago 7’ is how fast paced it is despite its two-hour run. Sorkin cleverly cuts between court scenes and the drama that unfolded on the streets of Chicago, giving the movie a consistent urgency. Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue also helps to keep the plot moving along thick and fast. It’s not the most realistic, especially in a courtroom. But this droll-ness sparkles, making each scene impactful and giving every one-liner a weight of power that will make you chuckle and get you thinking.
‘The Chicago 7’ is only Sorkin’s second directorial project, but you could hardly tell given the deftness with which he handles the story. The film opens with a montage of the main characters preparing for the fateful trip to Chicago. Set to urgent, broken jazz, we can clearly distinguish each character and their political motivations. This is really important as the film continues at this rapid pace, giving us the ideal grounding in what the main characters are all about so that we can sink our teeth into a rather nuanced story. Even the flashback segments are framed to tell us more about the characters; Sascha Baron Cohen’s nonchalant Abbie Hoffman reveals his perspective on the riot at a comedy gig years later. Another pivotal moment in the riot is revealed through a mock interrogation of Eddie Redmayne’s sober student character, Thomas Hayden. It’s a level sophisticated filmmaking with an attention to detail that takes the film to a new level.
The star-studded cast is well balanced, with the ensemble chemistry more impressive than any one performance. With actors including Redmayne, Mark Rylance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you have a very strong backbone. Cohen and Jeremy Strong provide welcome doses of laid-back comic relief, and Frank Langella is a good antagonist as doddery Judge Hoffman. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is all power as the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale but doesn’t get the screen time his complex character warrants. The only real issue with ‘The Chicago 7’ is the lack of compelling female characters, although this ultimately doesn’t much away from a set of very strong performances.
Aaron Sorkin has another hit with ‘The Chicago 7’. It pays tribute to the heroic counter-culturalists without martyring them. It balances honouring the seriousness and complexity of its subject without ever being dull. And its lightning pace means the film flies by despite a 120 minute-plus runtime. Definitely one to watch.
‘The Chicago 7’ packs in the dense, draining political content into a fast-paced rollercoaster ride. 7.5/10.
Check out Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix today!