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From left, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. 


Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is a timely 1960s history lesson that reverberates powerfully today. Focusing on the fight for civil rights, it explores how certain freedoms can never be taken for granted (certainly not in 2020).

Streaming on Netflix Oct. 16, the movie assembles a top-tier ensemble cast, retelling the true story of a political trial whose defendants, antiwar activists, faced the possibility of a 10-year sentence because of their ideas. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 features all the Sorkinisms associated with the creator of The West Wing. There’s fast-paced repartee, and long, brilliant monologues in which characters romanticize political ideals. 

During a rapid succession of Sorkinian sequences in which characters can’t stop talking while they’re walking, the movie introduces its main players while cutting to archival footage. We see imagery of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam draft; Martin Luther King — his opposition to the war, and his murder; Robert Kennedy’s assassination; activist groups vocally opposing the war.

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Sacha Baron Cohen, left, and Jeremy Strong.


Netflix

“Martin (Luther King) is dead. Malcolm (X) is dead. Medgar (Evers) is dead. Bobby (Kennedy) is dead. Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we gonna try something else,” says Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the beginning of the film. He’s going to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the war.

Seale isn’t the only one heading to Chicago with that in mind. So are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), two leaders of Students for a Democratic Society. There’s also David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), from Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, and decided nonconformists Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) from the Youth International Party (the Yippies). They all want to march and oppose Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who isn’t antiwar. But protests end in clashes with police and the National Guard. The organizers are charged with conspiracy to incite a riot.

The film introduces viewers to each of those real people with their names shown on screen when the characters first appear. The movie juxtaposes the court proceedings in 1969, when Richard Nixon was president, with the events of the summer of 1968 that led to the trial.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests and demands for racial and social justice make this film essential viewing. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is timely because of the era it depicts, but it’s not the only film revisiting this time period in the United States. Others include the documentary MLK/FBI; the Regina King-directed movie One Night in Miami; and Judas and the Black Messiah, which recounts the 1969 police killing of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. 

A surprise in The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Borat comedian Cohen’s performance. He’s clearly having fun, sporting the unruly hair and unkempt clothes of a hippie who doesn’t respect authority yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. Cohen plays the juicy part with the right amount of rakishness — the British actor has some of the best lines in the movie, and delivers them with the colorful New England accent his character had in real life.

Lines like: “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before” or “the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.” But my favorite Cohen/Hoffman moment takes place when the judge (played by Frank Langella, looking like he’d be perfectly at ease in an episode of The Good Fight) asks him if he’s familiar with the term “contempt of court.” To which Cohen’s character replies: “It’s practically a religion to me, sir.”

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Director Aaron Sorkin on the set of The Trial of the Chicago 7.


Netflix

In an ensemble populated by more big names, like Michael Keaton and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, other standout performers include Abdul-Mateen and Academy Award-winner Redmayne. He plays polished student leader Hayden with a magnetism I wasn’t aware he possessed. Abdul-Mateen, fresh from his Emmy win in Watchmen, is at the center of an especially uncomfortable sequence in which his character is gagged and viciously mistreated. The Trial of the Chicago 7 touches on the fact that Abdul-Mateen’s character was the only Black person on trial, exposing how differently he was handled.

My only objection is the lack of substantial female characters. This isn’t unusual for Sorkin, who almost makes it look here like men were the only ones fighting for civil rights in the ’60s. I’m sure that for this story Sorkin could’ve found a good C.J. Cregg-type character — The West Wing’s talented press secretary turned chief of staff (played by Allison Janney).

“I want to bring back manners. How about that? The America I grew up in,” US Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), who served under Nixon, says at the start of The Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin makes a point that some things haven’t changed all that much since 1969.

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