Film: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Director: Aaron Benjamin Sorkin
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch and Eddie Redmayne
Travesty of justice or a requiem for fair play? Only, The Trial of the Chicago 7 isn’t as simple or simplistic as any one-liner would delude yourself to believe. Based on a real incident, the Aaron Sorkin film streaming on Netflix takes you back in time. It is America of the late 1960s. Many would and could rightly argue not much has changed since. For as Black lives matter has proved, prejudices remain as deep-seated. Only, Trial of… isn’t just about the rights (or lack of it) of blacks.
The question isn’t merely about citizens’ right to protest either. But the injustice of a system meant to deliver justice. The year is 1969 when eight protestors belonging to different groups are handpicked for a trial. As one of the defendant Abbey says ‘we were not arrested, we were chosen’.
Pray why, for inciting violence. As the story unspools and the trial unravels, we learn who represents which group and what exactly their cause celebre is. In case you have forgotten, it is the period when opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War picked up. The anti-Vietnam war protestors are out to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
A year later, they are on a trial for inciting crowds leading to violence. Are they guilty? The government certainly believes so and the bias of the judge is so blatantly prejudicial, it’s not funny at all. Sure the wisecracks of the defendants make you smile at the irony of it all. When one defendant utters, “This is the academy award of protests. It’s an honour to be nominated,” you can’t help but grin. But make no mistake; nothing about the film is facile or puerile. The writing by Sorkin (who also wrote A Few Good Men) is brilliant, so cogently put together you can barely suppress your admiration or awe for those smart one-liners. There isn’t a single dialogue that is out of place or one you can afford to miss. Actually blink and you are likely to miss an important piece of information. Of course, in our part of the world some of the names or even references may not find a resonance.
But the actors playing them would. There is Sacha Baron Cohen from The Spy, playing an altogether different character of Abbey but with the same finesse. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz the prosecution attorney is not even a wee bit out of line. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Michael Keaton as former attorney general, the actors fit into their parts to the T. Frank Langella as the despicable judge Julius Hoffman is so much in his abominable character, you would love to hate him. And together, they take you through the proceedings and from one scene to another so smoothly, you won’t regret a single moment invested in this piece of cinema that is as much art as a voice of protest.
When Abbey says, “Give me a moment dear friend, I have never been on a trial for my thoughts,” you actually take a moment to process it all. What exactly is this unjust world where the judge would not let former attorney general to take the stand, where he would not allow a black man the right to represent himself and hold one man after another in contempt of court? Intercutting scenes of protests with courtroom drama, if the editing is razor sharp, the three years over which the story is spread hold together like glue. And you are glued to your TV screens.
“The world is watching,” the line plays itself over and over again. Well, the world should be watching (this film) for sure. What and for whom the film’s heart beats for is palpable all through and most evident in the song that plays in end credits. “Hear my words, hear my dreams, let’s make a world in which we believe.” Can we the people of democracies world over do that… tough call, but Sorkin makes us hear what he has set out to say. Loud and clear, let’s say, compelling and powerful. Un-missable, even if you are far removed from the politics of America. For at the centre of it is something called universal.