Inequities of man are met with protests. Some agree and the voices get louder, some disagree and tell them how to protest. Then lives are lost unnecessarily and protesters get angry, taking to the streets to confront their government. To challenge those protesters, the government sends armed law enforcement who use their clubs, tear gas, and other non-lethal gear to beat, blind, and wear out the opposition. A show of defiance by the populace is met not with concern, but with anger, leading to unnecessary trials that are nothing more than circus performances meant to stamp down resistance, not seek justice.
What year do you picture with such a description?
Is it 1941 when Emmett Till was murdered for the suspicion of talking to a white girl? Is it 1946 when Maceo Snipes was killed for defying local pressures telling him not to vote? Could it be 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murder? Or 2014 with Michael Brown or Eric Garner? Or 2015 with India Kager? 2020 after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others had their lives cut short? This doesn’t even include the more than 200k lost to mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, time is truly a circle as the description applies the events leading up the infamous trial of the Chicago 8 in 1970 after a Vietnam War demonstration in Chicago turned bloody and the Nixon administration sought to stamp out public resistance to the war he inherited. Eight men were put on trial after being cleared by the federal government under the Johnson administration, yet that was not enough. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game, The West Wing) pulls together a veritable who’s-who of talent to tell the startling true story, in a manner only a skilled storyteller could manage, of when the government decided, not for the first time, to use the large machine of bureaucracy to stamp out any dissidents.
Though it uses real locations in Chicago, a mixture of footage from sources news-related and not, as well as transcripts from the trial itself, don’t mistake The Trial of the Chicago 7 for a documentary. Even with several anchors of truth, Chicago 7 is entirely a Sorkin production. Wingnuts (fans of The West Wing) know exactly what that means, but let’s break this down for the groundlings. First, it means the dialogue is sharp and snappy. There’s a rhythm, a distinct cadence to the words, which requires actors capable of keeping up. For all the speed that’s required to maintain a steady, perky energy, the dialogue remains distinct and clear. Not just anyone can do this, which means that the actors Sorkin selects must be equipped to handle it. Luckily for this cast, there’s less walking to do than other Sorkin projects (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom, Sports Night), but that means their physical performance has to match, more tightly, the energy of the dialogue. Thankfully for us watching, Sorkin gathered together an ensemble more than capable of managing it all and seem duly bound for awards recognition. Truly, there is not a single performance that stands out over another as each one is amplified and balanced by those around them. Then there’s the inherent optimism about the political process. Whether Sorkin is exploring the military (A Few Good Men), the White House (The West Wing), or news (The Newsroom), he focuses on the intrinsic goodness of people. The “villains,” if there are any, are not those who oppose Sorkin’s characters, but those who willfully and purposefully choose the dishonorable thing. In the case of the film Chicago 7, it’s the political engine within the Nixon administration and all the individuals who intentionally seek punishment out of personal perspective versus any sense of truth. Then there’s the focal point of the story: personal relationships. For each world Sorkin’s created or explored, each has been nothing more than set dressing to explore how we as people engage with each other and what great things we can accomplish when we listen to our better angels. For Chicago 7, that means focusing on the defendants, via their relationship with each other, and the prosecutors. By doing this, Sorkin explores the heart of humankind via what drives them and what keeps them awake at night. This trifecta has worked in the past for Sorkin and it more than delivers the goods in Chicago 7, a film which is completely painful to endure due to the series of breaches in judicial and human ethics on display, yet is so pleasurable in the execution that you’ll want to watch it again upon its ending.
Sorkin’s not the first director to tackle Vietnam this year. Strangely, his Chicago 7 works as an interesting companion piece to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Da 5 Bloods also plays with time as a fluid construct, while using a mixture of news footage and staged performance to capture both the ferocity of war and the pain which lingers under the skin decades later. For Chicago 7, a film which is certainly much lighter in tone despite the painful truths it explores, Sorkin scrutinizes how the justice system has, can, and continues to be used for political reasons rather than as intended by the Founders. He plainly states as much when Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s Richard Schultz is given the case by new Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) and whose reaction to the use of the Rap Brown Law is to explain that the anti-riot act was created in the South to be used to disenfranchise Black voters. Before the audience is even shown the events leading up to the case, by framing the trial within the scope of voter intimidation, Sorkin lets the audience know that the trial is entirely personal and malignant in nature. More than that, what the audience is about to see is as close to a farce as the truth can come. In light of the recent Breonna Taylor ruling, Sorkin’s optimism is needed, in fact required, in order for the change The Seven sought in 1968 to come about today.
“The Whole World Is Watching.” This is the chant the demonstrators at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention shouted as the police and their patrol cars, outfitted with barbed-wire, rolled down the street executing crowd control. Even now, with technology so advanced that citizen journalists capture moments raw as they happen removing the need to rely on major global news outlets to show us the world events, we’ve somehow forgotten that the people are not the enemy of government but the benefactors. To treat the populace as combatants, as President Trump has encouraged on more than one occasion, is to sow unrest that has no choice but to take to the streets when the system fails. As presented by Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is evidence of a most egregious failure, though it’s certainly not the most recent. Mixing awards-worthy performances from a brilliantly selected ensemble with historical footage, real locations, and transcripts from the trial, Sorkin walks us through a heightened version of the truth. Make no mistake, just because it is heightened for dramatic effect, it is no less evocative as the manipulation of our justice system to favor those who wield and wish to maintain that power continues to this day.
In select theaters beginning September 25th, 2020.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning October 16th, 2020.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.