“The Trial of the Chicago 7” review: the first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it

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Scene from Chicago Seven Film - man walking between two protesting crowds that are being held back by barricades
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” premiered in select theatres on Sept. 25, 2020, and began streaming on Netflix on Oct. 16, 2020. (Netflix)

There are far too many films that are nothing more than guilty-pleasures. Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin, isn’t one of them. 

The film fields an all-star cast, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton and upcoming actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. 

The film, set in 1968, follows seven defendants throughout their trial after they lead protests against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 

The movie opens with a momentous montage that lasts almost seven minutes—at a point, one might wonder if the whole film will be as fast-paced. Finally, viewers get a chance to catch their breath when the montage halts and the title sequence appears.

The audience sees Black Panther National Chairman Bobby Seale rushing out of his quarters with purpose and zeal. Next, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the creators of the Yippie movement, relax on the phone with a stressed-out Tom Hayden, who treats his number one confidant, Rennie Davis, as an assistant. David Dellinger soon enters the film, as he finishes packing his belongings in his car while he reminds his pin-up wife and son of the importance of nonviolent protest and revolution. 

The film introduces Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis as promising young men who lead SDS (Students for a Democratic Society.) The beginning reveals Hayden’s tenacity when he riles up his audience by saying, “Young people will go to Chicago by the busloads to show our solidarity and our disgust.”

To the people of Chicago’s apparent surprise, this is exactly what happens. The flashbacks between what went awry at the protests and how they evolved into riots, and the courtroom scenes are painful to watch. Between a rigged jury, an obviously ultra-conservative judge and recriminating evidence tossed aside, the audience could deem these men as saints for keeping their sanity.

Feeling like firsthand witnesses to the case, audience members can expect to feel bewildered and wonder how it all could have happened.

This is the movie that will keep your eyes glued to the screen and your hands phone-free at last. 

Every skit Cohen’s character delivers as Hoffman is so in-tune with the trial that it cloaks him with false invincibility. Redmayne’s portrayal of Tom Hayden reminds me of young revolutionists today, with his strong convictions but ironic passivity. “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second,” he says at one point in the film. 

Mateen’s portrayal of Seale left me heartbroken and bitter with anger for the obvious discrimination he faces in the courtroom.

“The Trial of The Chicago 7” delivers a story too often ignored in history. The duality of the film lies in how closely tied it is to today. It’s easy to laugh at Hoffman and Rubin’s shenanigans before the judge, or to shed a tear when a cop clubs Davis in the head.

Crucifixion would be an easier fate than to sit through such an unjust trial. To watch this film is to honor these men’s mark on history and to relearn what a revolution looks like.

As Abbie Hoffman says, “The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.”

sjhhkd@mail.umkc.edu

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