The trial (little t = not the movie, the trial itself) of the Chicago 7 was a clusterfuck from the start. From before the start. From before the trial, from before the election, from before the protest, from before the war…injustice is as American as apple pie and is baked right into the constitution. To say it wasn’t a fair trial assumes it was ever even a trial. By its very definition, a trial is an examination of evidence in order to determine guilt. Although the trial of the Chicago 7 was by jury, the judge on the case made it clear the evidence didn’t matter and wouldn’t be heard because their guilt was presumptive and anyone who disagreed was an idiot. Of course, not only was the trial of the Chicago 7 not a trial, there weren’t technically 7 of them either. We start with 8 and end up with 5, but more on that later.
A quick pre-trial bit history: it’s 1968. American is gearing up for a tough election amid a lot of unrest. MLK has been assassinated, and civil rights has become more dominated by the Black Panthers than by peaceful protest. The Vietnam war is increasingly unpopular but still racking up a disturbing daily body count. And so a bunch of different protest groups are descending upon Chicago, which is hosting the Democratic National Convention. Though there are many different organizations with different goals and methods of exacting them, they all pretty much agree that change starts with electing the right kind of leader. But the convention becomes secondary news to the riots and bloodshed that surrounds it. When the dust clears, “seven” men have been arrested for conspiring to start a riot. They did no such thing – some had never even met before being indicted for the crime, but like I said earlier, this was never about justice or truth. It was about politics.
The five men who wind up on trial are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). The bonus 8th is Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was only passing through Chicago at the time but got lumped in because a group that includes an angry black man looks 90% guiltier to any jury of “their: peers. As you can see, this is already a fantastic cast and I haven’t even told you about Mark Rylance, who plays a defense attorney, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays the lead prosecutor. But the man who steals the show (and this is indeed an undeniable sausage fest) is Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man so inept at his job, so obviously biased and painstakingly obstructive in his own courtroom that he appears to be mentally incompetent. The trial is a circus, the truth is irrelevant, the law has no part to play, and the whole thing gets so wildly out of control you simply won’t believe what is allowed to happen in a court of law. And yet it did, it’s all true.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin is absurdly good at sifting through months worth of testimony to find the perfect exchanges to illustrate this absurd miscarriage of justice and a mind-boggling waste of resources. He’s also deft enough (un oeuf) to point us toward the inevitable conclusion; this was train wreck of a trial but an excellent diversion that dominated the news cycle, elbowing things like an unpopular war and an unpopular president off the newspaper’s front page. Sorkin’s direction keeps things simple. History has provided some outsized personalities and a court transcript so outlandish you couldn’t make it up. It’s not a flashy film but it is a memorable one.