Thursday, October 15, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Released October 16, 2020 (Netflix)

History has a lot to tell us about the present. Examining documented events through a new lens can be both informative and disturbing, since in many cases what may have been perceived as a corrected facet of society reveals itself to be very much still existent. Injustice in criminal courts and discrimination in the justice system remain rampant today as they were in the era of segregation, and political parties remain committed to achieving their agendas regardless of who might be marginalized along the way. This dramatization of an infamous trial from the late 1960s feels extraordinarily relevant in this moment.

Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is brought in by U.S. Attorney Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) to try eight defendants accused of conspiracy and starting riots in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Among them, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are Yippies, and their countercultural conduct stands in opposition to the more polished appearances of intellectual Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and suit-wearing pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is looped in with the rest despite a short visit to Chicago and the absence of his lawyer, who requires emergency surgery. As their attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) try the case, the disdain for all the defendants and their lawyers is continuously clear from the haughty and unforgiving Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

This is a relatively well-known chapter of American history that was dramatized in “Chicago 10,” an animated documentary from 2008 that includes the lawyers in its count as part of the activist team. This film, in different iterations, has been in development since that time, and its manifestation in this form was well worth the wait. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin makes excellent use of his patented fast-talking scripts to convey a wealth of information in a tremendously engaging format. Historical analysis indicates that certain characters and events have been questionably altered for dramatic purposes, though those changes don’t make it a weaker film in its own right. Flashbacks used to reveal the activities of this group are neatly folded into this film’s rhythm, thoroughly involving for the entirety of its 129-minute runtime, which could have been much longer and still been riveting.

A film like this offers a tremendous opportunity for talent, and none of the actors disappoint. It’s actually difficult to pinpoint a standout since even the more minor players that appear on screen for only a scene or two are terrific. Sacha Baron Cohen is particularly formidable as defendant Hoffman, just as skilled as this film in balancing entertaining humor and moving drama. Abdul-Mateen and Redmayne offer powerful pictures of resistance and values, while Langella conveys Judge Hoffman’s despicable nature without making him seem cartoonish. This film will be seen by most audiences at home on Netflix, and despite the fact that it can be paused, it’s unlikely that anyone will choose to look away when this film’s content and presentation are equally captivating.


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