Netflix review: 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is the first real Oscar contender for 2020

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 25 2020 06:18 AM

A scene from 'The Trial of the Chicago 7.' Handout

In 1968, there were several groups who gathered in Chicago to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. These were the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) under Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Youth International Party (Yippies) under Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe) led by David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and the Black Panther Party under their national chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen). 

When bloody riots broke out between the protesters and the Mayor Richard Daley's police force in Chicago's Grant Park during the 35th Democratic National Convention held from August 26-29, 1968, these six leaders were arrested and charged as revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the American government -- the new radical Left. 

On September 26, 1969, the trial was underway to indict them for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite violence. Their defense lawyers were William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). The federal government was represented by lead prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Attorney General Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie). The presiding judge was Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). 

Watch more in iWantTFC

Aaron Sorkin had been a noted screenwriter since his debut in 1992 with the film "A Few Good Men." He would be credited with writing some of the most compelling biopics like "Moneyball" (2011), "Steve Jobs" (2015), his directorial debut "Molly's Game" (2017) and most notably, "The Social Network" (2010), for which he swept all the major awards for Best Adapted Screenplay. On television, he is most remembered for his work on the long-running political drama "The West Wing" which had won a slew of Emmy Awards from 2000 to 2003. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is only his second directorial job but he was clearly in his element.

The first two minutes alone were already a concise but effective introduction to all seven of the main defendants. We get to know their personalities quirks and their political philosophies which would all come to play as the trial went on. After the title card, we were introduced to the straight-laced lead prosecutor Schultz who took on the case on the sheer pressure of his superiors. We could see the judge's questionable character from the get-go. All the actors were very committed to their characters and their ensemble work, most notably Cohen as the witty smart-ass Abbie Hoffman and Langella as the off-kilter Judge Hoffman (not related). 

Sorkin's storytelling style would bring us back and forth in time to tell the story in seamlessly edited scenes from testimonies from witness stand to scenes in Grant Park the year before, with real news footage integrated as well. His visual style was very energetic as fireworks blew up on the streets and in the courtroom. 

His original screenplay was a complex work of writing that dealt with multiple characters based on real life people with distinctive personalities and political motivations. 

Issues about freedom of speech and assembly is as relevant today as it was back then. This is the first serious Oscar contender for Best Picture I can foresee for this coming awards season. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."