Among the sea of Netflix content, one may run across a kernel of hope that lies in the vast mediocrity of the Netflix platform. One such film is The Trial of the Chicago 7, a 2020 Netflix original film directed by Aaron Sorkin. The film is a dramatic reenactment of the infamous 1969 trial of the same name in which seven social justice activists lead anti-war protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention held in Chicago. They were prosecuted for allegedly starting the ensuing riots. A realistic documentary style of presenting the case may have proven tiresome to watch for most audiences, so instead the film takes on a dramatic tone involving excellent acting and editing.
The cast plays to the story wonderfully, with my personal favorite character being Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. Cohen’s performance elevates an already complex character into one that the audience grows to respect and understand. Part of this of course is Abbie Hoffman being already a character himself, putting on an act in a sense to build support for his cause, so Cohen’s ability to character act so well truly shows how complex Abbie Hoffman was.
The yin to Hoffman’s yang is the other main activist in the story, Thomas Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne. Whereas Hoffman is the quintessential hippie, Hayden is a much more institutional activist rather than cultural. This dynamic becomes one of the more played up and interesting parts of the story, so much so that its message tends to eclipse the simpler message provided by the trial. Does revolution come from the culture into the system or can the system be worked within itself as intended? This conflict boils over part way through the trial in which Hayden’s moral foundation is shown to be much less solid than previously thought. Unfortunately, in this brief moment of moral complexity there was a simple matter of grammar misunderstanding and Hayden is immediately cleansed of doubt, followed by him and Hoffman coming together in classic movie fashion for the climaxing story.
I’m unsure how close this adaptation is to the real events, but the flat resolving of Hayden’s moral dilemma was a letdown for me. It offered the only real moral complexity in the story since there is nothing complex to feel about a bigoted judge, a rigged system, and an unnecessary war.
Story simplicity aside, the development of the characters follows along with the messaging of the plot, one of social solidarity and justice versus an unjust system. As the trial continues, we see exactly how unjust the system was in 1969, with a portrayal of an incredibly inept and biased Judge. Again, I’m unsure how close to reality the film truly is, but for me the heavy-handed decisions the judge makes seem almost too cliché, providing an easy out for a physical villain within the story. If the judge was genuinely so incredibly biased throughout the trial as the film suggests, perhaps the message is more of continued futility in the hope of change rather than the immediate gratification of winning the trial.
The trial’s end, and thus the film’s, does mark a significant turnaround in the moral of which can be appreciated. Besides the wonderful acting, the film’s editing brings to life what would otherwise be a boring court drama with tragic implications. The editing brings the viewers onto scenes as they are being described by multiple characters, providing a quick tempo that occasionally crescendos into full transitions.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an enjoyable watch and can be related to current social unrest in today’s turbulence. It offers a well-executed glimpse at what social justice was during the Vietnam War, its multifaceted perspectives, and allows the audience to speculate what can be done in today’s climate.
Written by Damon Rios
Damon is an amateur writer and professional media consumption artist. Movies, music, games, and books are all on the table. He is working towards a bachelor’s in communications and hopes to go professional in any writing capacity. As stated, Damon’s habits rotate from music consumption, to movie consumption, and everything in between.