“The Trial of the Chicago 7” has been living rent-free in my mind all weekend. The new film from Aaron Sorkin, now streaming on Netflix, chronicles the notorious sham trial of a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors, falsely charged by the government for “conspiracy” to cross state lines and incite riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The film illustrates how Richard Nixon’s new administration decided to make an expedient political example out of the men, with the goal of intimidating the anti-war and Black power movements.
Sorkin sets an ironically jaunty tone for this film right off the bat, with an opening montage that smoothly introduces the main personalities, conflicts and issues within five or six minutes. He gets us right into the courtroom with the necessary storytelling alacrity—the events of the actual riot in question are told through flashbacks and, creatively, the stand-up comedy sets of one of the characters.
The main draw of this film is undoubtedly the cast, which is so good it’s laughable. Frank Langella, as conservative Judge Julias Hoffman, presides over the “trial” with both ineptitude and intentional cruelty. Mark Rylance, as defense attorney William Kunstler in a truly remarkable combover wig, excellently conveys his determination and frustration with the case. Joseph Gordon-Levitt grounds the film as prosecutor-who-is-really-a-mensch Richard Schultz. Among the defendants, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, with charisma and understandable rage. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne portrays anti-war activist Tom Hayden, leader of Students for a Democratic Society.
But, come on, we all know who you came to see, because it’s who I came to see too: Sacha Baron Cohen absolutely dominates this film as Abbie Hoffman, Worcester-born counter-culture revolutionary social activist and keen observer of this absurdist trial. Baron Cohen is transcendent, by turns silly and deadly serious. In a cast full of Oscar winners and nominees, there is not a scene he does not steal, not one line he doesn’t deliver with brutal and eviscerating perfection. This film lives and breathes because of his performance. He plays off Redmayne’s preppy Hayden particularly well: “It’s a revolution, Tom. We may have to hurt somebody’s feelings!” he mock exclaims.
Seven of the characters are supposed to be Jews. But, oddly, there is only one moment addressing any aspect of Jewishness: when Abbie Hoffman takes the stand. Judge Hoffman (no relation, but that’s a running joke) asks Abbie to give his name. He says his grandfather was originally called Shaboznikov. “He was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism, so he was assigned a name that would sound like yours,” Abbie pointedly says to the judge. What’s odd here is that in real life, Abbie Hoffman did not say this. Instead, he called Judge Julius Hoffman “a shonda fur die Goyim”—in Yiddish, it means an embarrassment to the Jews in front of non-Jewish people. I would have very much loved to see Baron Cohen yell that in Yiddish, and I wonder why such an epic real-life moment was cut. Are we, the audience, supposed to think the judge wasn’t also Jewish? (He was.) Or are we supposed to see him as a “bad Jew” who has thrown his lot in with the establishment conservatives, while Abbie is a liberal, righteous, “good Jew” on the correct side of history? I’m not sure, and, to be honest, I don’t think the film is quite sure either.
In the last few years, Baron Cohen has emerged as a leader against antisemitic propaganda. He delivered a searing keynote at the Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. He has become Mark Zuckerberg’s arch enemy. It’s no shock that he’s a big part of this film, seeing as to how what’s happening in 2020 shares a lot in common with the events of 1968 when it comes to government corruption, racism and police brutality.
Sorkin and Baron Cohen have both spoken about the need to release this film before the 2020 presidential election because the parallels to what we are experiencing as a country are stark. Beale, the one Black man of the original eight on trial, was denied legal representation throughout the trial, and each time in the film he tries to speak in his defense, he is held in contempt. In a truly nauseating scene, the judge orders the court to wait while Beale is gagged and beaten. Eventually, he’s severed from the case and the trial proceeds with the remaining seven men.
I could not watch this film without the events of this summer running through my mind simultaneously. Cops taking off their badges in preparation to beat protestors bloody—all of us saw that during the widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd. We saw the actual president order and orchestrate violence against peacefully protesting American citizens so he could pose with an upside-down Bible to look “strong.” We saw elderly people knocked unconscious by police in full riot gear, protestors abducted in unmarked vans, journalists blinded. Even those of us who weren’t out in the streets watched that happen from the vantage point of thousands of cell phone videos.
As the film cuts to black with the final words, “The whole world is watching,” it feels like Sorkin is imploring us, the audience, to act against the injustice, racism, brutality and corruption in our own government. But I have a feeling that if you’re planning on watching “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the reminder is just a reiteration of what you already know.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is streaming on Netflix.