The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s Film Premieres Today
The writer-director’s new Netflix film tells a story
from 50 years ago that is bracingly relevant to today
Review by Richard Lawson, Chief Critic of Vanity Fair
Above: The defendants included Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Ben Shenkman). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was also charged but he was tried separately.
Aaron Sorkin has, once again, heeded his own call to duty. After giving expansive lessons in the proper methods of governance (The West Wing) and the news media (The Newsroom)—and making some stops to push back against social media (The Social Network) and prosecutorial railroading (Molly’s Game)—he’s found himself on a grand dais once more. His new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which premieres today on Netflix), aims to be a resounding call for this moment: an urgent reminder of how American systems bulldoze and disenfranchise challengers of the dominant political philosophy. In looking back to the past—to the trial of eight, later seven, activists accused of causing the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Sorkin aims to impart a lesson for the present.
The writer/director’s didactic approach works, both as an old-fashioned Hollywood drama and as political protest. Sorkin has keenly located in the Boomer age a story that speaks directly to the here and now. That’s mostly because so little has changed since Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and four others were made harsh examples of by the newly empowered Nixon administration, used as a warning to other protesters against the Vietnam War.
So many of the mechanics depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7‘ are terribly familiar. And yet we still find ourselves asking the most obvious rhetorical questions in boggled horror: how could an Attorney General be this nakedly biased and politically punitive? How could a judge be so obviously tyrannical? How could so many Americans support such a terrible cause, and cheer on a brutal police force as they antagonized the people courageously fighting against it? The answers in the film are plain, because they are still plain today. American power is rigged against progressivism, and stridently hostile toward it. The language may have been somewhat different in the late 1960s and early ’70s than it is now, but the intent is the same.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an instructive bit of history, which should be depressing to see how little has changed in 50 years. Instead, it’s galvanizing to be reminded of the long history of the struggle. The film is steeped in optimism, or at least an appreciation for the better world this case’s defendants so ardently strived for.
Sorkin’s film is a valuable contribution to the discourse of this election season. That timeliness is very much on purpose. The writer/director is re-creating this shameful moment from the past to highlight the continued shame of the ongoing American relationships between police and the policed, prosecution and the prosecuted. The most stirring thing The Trial of the Chicago 7 does is show a relatively disparate group of activists joining together to confront a common, ever-looming enemy. By the end, they’ve put some cracks in the monolith, ones we can see all the better from the vantage point of today. In the spirit of those defendants, may it someday shatter for good.