‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ review: an entertaining, terrifyingly relevant projection

There’s a reason it’s called a projector. There’s the physics and optical science, of course, of projecting the moving, bustling-with-life images onto a projection screen. But there’s another angle to movies that emanate magic via the camera obscura. That’s the power of movies and their ability to project the wraith of past horrors that metamorphosize in modern forms carrying the same mendacious intent. 

The erosion of democratic institutions. A trigger-happy and racist police force. A vengeance-powered administration. A malevolent hunt to squish dissenting voices. A malleable judiciary. Only, in The Trial of the Chicago 7, the year is 1968. There’s a reason it’s called a projector. 

And Writer-director Aaron Sorkin focuses, in his latest outing, the true-life story of a trial that lasted for almost a year, and demonstrated in all its dubious glory, the ball-and-chain grip that subversive and mala fide governing forces exert on institutions, that, ironically, were set up to be free of those very forces. The Democratic National Convention is to take place in Chicago and rag-tag groups plan to protest before and during the Convention, against the American involvement in the deadly, never-seem-to-be-ending, high-toll Vietnam war. There’s a reason it’s called a projector.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is dogged yet troubled.

Sorkin doesn’t show what happened during the convention. He saves that for later, using disquieting flashback cuts to flesh out the narrative. But for now, he swiftly assembles the group to stride towards the Convention. His focus is on the eight (yes, eight) people who will be tried some months after the event for inciting a riot. And he puts together a fantastic ensemble cast who add the zapping power to his zipping trajectory. There’s the pot-smoking Youth International Party (Yippies)—founding members Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong; Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) who’re not only protesting the war but also the imminent nomination of Hubert Humphrey. “When it comes to war and when it comes to social justice, there’s simply not enough of a difference between Humphrey and Nixon to make a difference”, says Hayden. There’s a reason it’s called a projector.

Mark Rylance is terrific as co-defense counsel.

There’s David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) who’s the leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) who promises his family that he’s going meet violence with non-violence. “Always non-violence, and that’s without exception.” Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) zooms in too, he the chair of the Black Panther Party. Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) round up the eight men, who the Department of Justice targets for prosecution. Leading the target team is conscientious and troubled federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, superb). Troubled because he’s not convinced going after these men is the right way to go. But his boss Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) won’t have it any other way because Howard Ackerman (Damian Young) Special Advisor to the Attorney General, won’t. And that’s because the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell (John Doman) won’t. And that’s because ….you see how the chain of command reins and transmits its power? There’s a reason it’s called a projector.

Eddie Redmayne: one of the main guys.

But Sorkin doesn’t consume as much time as I did for the preamble, and before you know, you’re bullet-trained amidst the trial. The defense counsel team comprises William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, who, with a hushed, tired tone, and later unbelieving demeanor sweeps you away) and Leonard Weinglass (Benjamin Shenkman), up against a ludicrously whimsical judge Julius Hoffman (the great and terrific Frank Langella) who, as the trial goes by, isn’t as ludicrous or whimsical as he seems. But his judgment’s already colored. There’s a reason it’s called a projector.

Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Sacha Baron Cohen: crowd fury.

The events that unfolded during the trial were so astounding, they’d have made for a chuckle-filled, for-a-lark sitcom. But the paralytic grip that the system coils around regular folks is a chilling scenario to watch, and director Sorkin with editor Alan Baumgarten peels the events in the courtroom to reveal why and how the men got to where they did with his typical zest and flair for snappy narratives. Criticized by some for taking far too many liberties—which in itself looks to be a fair accusation—the movie’s still a conjoined part of the times we live in, and everything that’s unfolded so far this year makes the movie terrifyingly relevant.

Using composer Daniel Pemberton’s upbeat score—to underscore the dissenting streak that runs through the movie like a throbbing artery—and his fantastic all-star cast (also look out for Michael Keaton in a key, turning-point role), Sorkin makes what is one of 2020’s most important movies. There’s crackling dialogues that whizz past each other with the surety of an arrow heading straight for the inner 10 yellow ring, and the actors pluck at the lines with the relish of seasoned archers. 

And after goofing about in the courtroom when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman takes the stand to speak, he punches you right where it hurts. There’s no such thing as a political trial? You can’t be arrested and tried for your thoughts? A denigrating, outdated, inapplicable law can’t be slapped on you for being a dissenting voice? Now you know why it’s called a projector. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (For Adults Only) for violence and profanity.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Director Aaron Sorkin Time 2h 9min
Writer Aaron Sorkin
Stars Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alex Sharp, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella
Genres Drama, History, Thriller

Watch the trailer of The Trial of the Chicago 7 here.