On the night of Aug. 15, 2020, a Black Lives Matter protest marched through downtown Chicago. Hordes of police officers descended upon them, encircling small groups of people in a process known as “kettling.” They sprayed eyes with tear gas, beat limbs with batons and indiscriminately shot rubber bullets and arrested Americans whose only crime was exercising their First Amendment rights. Does this sound like America?
Unfortunately, it should.
While the fascism on display in Chicago and many other American cities in the summer of 2020 may have seemed shockingly foreign to many Americans, it’s nothing new. It’s all happened before.
Aaron Sorkin’s (“Molly’s Game”) “The Trial of The Chicago Seven” is about another time when police smashed their way through American citizens: 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A coalition of left-wing groups met to protest the Vietnam War and were denied permits by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley. When thousands of people took to the streets anyway, it didn’t take long for police officers to remove their badges and start smashing skulls. Nights of violence followed.
The left was blamed, of course.
After Richard Nixon won the Presidency, his administration held a show trial for seven disparate left-wing leaders whose organizations attended the protests, including Tom Hayden from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), played in the film by Eddie Redmayne (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong (“Succession”) and Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”), of The Yippies and Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”), of the Black Panthers. They were accused of planning a “radical left” conspiracy.
The language of reactionary conservatism hasn’t changed, and neither has its baselessness. There was no conspiracy, and the groups behind the “Chicago Seven” simply protested together. That didn’t stop the trial from going on for months, though, and ruining entire lives.
“The Trial of The Chicago Seven” is the rarest of courtroom dramas: one that shows the limits, and even total failure, of the American justice system.
The performances roar with urgency, especially the scene-stealing Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Sacha Baron Cohen also effortlessly inhabits the radical, drug-fueled Yippie Abbie Hoffman who, like Cohen in real life, stirred up trouble to display the absurdity of the American establishment.
For a writer and director known for his unrelenting, machine-gun dialogue and idiosyncratic characters, Aaron Sorkin shows an unusual amount of restraint here. Unlike “The Newsroom,” his characters rarely sound like Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin, for the most part, keeps all the brouhaha to a minimum and instead lets history take the stage. The fluidity of his direction, which allows the camera to drift from a closeup to a long take in one shot, also keeps scenes riveting when the dialogue inevitably piles up.
“Chicago Seven” has moments of cheese that might make a cynical eye roll, but even the most schmaltzy of its scenes have a gobsmacking power in this nation’s current, troubled atmosphere. While Sorkin made the genius choice to intercut scenes with news footage and photographs from ’68, rooting the film in brutal reality, there are moments, especially when downtown Chicago is filled with tear gas and riot-geared national guardsmen, that the movie could be about the summer of 2020.
“The Trial of The Chicago Seven” is a call to arms that could not have come at a better time. Released just weeks before the 2020 election, it shows how corrupt, racist, oppressive and downright silly the American government can be at a time when it’s at its most corrupt, racist, oppressive and downright silly.
The film displays the destruction wrought when America’s law enforcement and justice system overstep their bounds and persecute who they should protect. It shows how the American right to protest is vital to democracy, and how it can perhaps even save America itself.
This is the history lesson this country needs right now.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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