“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” now playing in theatres, sees Aaron Sorkin return to the courtroom twenty-eight years after he put the words “You can’t handle the truth,” into Jack Nicholson’s mouth. This time around he’s re-enacting one of the most famous trials of the 1960s, using transcripts from the actual proceedings as a basis for the script. There is no one moment as powerful of Nicholson’s “truth” declaration but there is no denying the timeliness of the film’s fifty-two-year-old story.
Here’s the basic story for anyone too young to know the difference between Yippies and Yuppies.
The trial, which was originally the Chicago Eight until Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) had his case severed from the others, saw 60s counterculture icons Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party (the aforementioned Yippies), and assorted radicals David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot stemming from their actions at the anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Behind the prosecution desk is the young and meticulous Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) acting as assistant to the truculent chief prosecutor Tom Foran (J. C. MacKenzie). On the defense is lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a boldfaced name in civil rights litigation. On the bench is Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a conservative judge who once presided over an obscenity case against Lenny Bruce.
Those are the players and to a person they deliver solid performances, making the most of Sorkin’s snappy, rapid-fire dialogue. Of the ensemble cast Baron Cohen stands out, handing in a straight dramatic role; there’s no Mankini in sight. He’s too old by half to play the character who once famously urged kids to, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” but maintains the edge that make his comedic characters so memorable.
Sorkin, who also directs, has made a period piece that reverberates for today. A bridge that spans the five decades from the actual events, it’s a bit of history that comments on contemporary hot button topics like protest, civil rights and police brutality. The sight of Seale, the lone African American defendant, bound and gagged at the judge’s order, is a potent reminder of racial injustice in the penal system. Re-enactments of police brutality during the riots and the consequent discussion of who is to blame for the violence, the protestors or the bill club swinging cops could be ripped from today’s headlines.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t perfect. Gordon-Levitt’s character is a cypher, a prosecutor who breaks with his colleagues at a crucial moment and Hoffman is played as a pantomime villain, but as a reminder of how history is repeated, it is a compelling watch.