‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ brings the past to the present

History tends to repeat itself, at least in the eyes of the beholder. Whether it’s the change of environment or the lack of learning from past mistakes to change ourselves for the better, history tends to flow back towards the next generation. 

After winning the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Acting Ensemble and earning the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has proven itself to be a politically relevant film in 2021 with a story that takes place in 1969’s America. 

Its uncanny parallel with the current political climate has also made an impression on publications such as Variety that predict the film will be nominated for Best Picture when the Academy Awards announce their nominations for their 93rd ceremony on March 15.

But how does a film that sheds light on a five-decade-old case correlate with events that are currently happening as we speak? 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 paints a visual image of one of the most infamous legal cases in American history: the fight between militarized Nixon-esque law and order and left-leaning activists.

Directed by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Moneyball”), the film has a high profile cast that includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, and Jeremy Strong.

The courtroom melodrama follows a group of protesters known as the Chicago 7 who were orchestrating anti-Vietnam War and countercultural protests in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. During the film, the group is charged and standing trial for inciting violence and rioting.

Some of those in the trial were Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong); Tom Hayden (Redmayne), one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society; and Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II), one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party.

The Netflix original starts with a beat that lures audiences towards the characters while keeping the momentum, not making the two-hour experience feel that it’s overstaying its welcome on the screen. The film also provides clarity of the ‘68-’69 political climate while building up to the first day of trial without feeling daunting. 

Throughout the course of the film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 brings the argument on what follows the First Amendment right to assembly and what constitutes as a riot in the corridors of power. 

The film’s intriguing storytelling also more or less shows parallels with the current events that happened within the past year: the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality protests, the militarization of law enforcement and declarations of law and order, and the Capital insurrection that occurred mere months ago. 

The film’s A-list cast does an exceptional job with their performances which makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 eccentric and gripping while calibrating the scene to convey empathy with subtlety. Although each actor in the film has shining moments at points, Cohen, Strong, and Abdul-Matteen II stand out the most.

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Cohen’s take of the smart, joking Yippie who at times struggles with separating ego from idealism makes the perfect rival to Redmayne’s clean-cut Hayden who is trying to emulate righteousness. Cohen’s Hoffman also gives some scenes of silliness to separate from the melancholy while making a seamless transition to a dead-serious demeanor when the scene calls it.

Strong’s portrayal of Reuben as Hoffman’s stoner sidekick also helps bring comic relief from funny interactions with the other characters. Despite stoner characters being typically one-dimensional characters in Hollywood, Strong brings dramatic moments of vulnerability while still maintaining the “stoner persona.” 

Although Abdul-Matten II’s screen time is shorter than the rest, his scenes resonate with the racial discrimination that was happening in the late 1960s. In the role of Seale, he was able to portray the co-founder of the Black Panthers as a confrontational man who has to prove that he’s brought in due to his status in the political group and his race.

With Seale’s fate almost sealed in the unjust rulings of a discriminatory judge, Abdul-Matten brings out the frustration and anxiety Seale emits as he’s trapped in a trial with no lawyer, and essentially no rights. 

Overall, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a great film that provides powerful moments for each of its characters. The relevance of the fifty-year-old case is eerily eye-opening but gives viewers more reason to analyze the film closely. As the anticipation of the official nominees of the 2021 Academy Awards is high, the words of the protesters still resonate with viewers on what comes next. 

“The whole world is watching.”

Editor’s Note: (L-R) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass, Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis. Photo courtesy of Nico Tavernise/Netflix.