The specter of 1968 hangs over so much of America today. It was a time of massive social upheaval, unrest, and push for change. It’s impossible to look at those tumultuous years and not see parallels with today. It’s impossible to look at what happened at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and not realize how little has changed.
What we saw then is so strikingly similar to what happened this summer that it’s terrifying. In August of 1968, thousands of demonstrators descended upon the city to protest the Democratic Party’s continued support of the Vietnam War, hoping that they could somehow influence the outcome of the nomination. They were met with fierce resistant from establishment politicians like Mayor Richard Daley and a militarized police force. The ensuing riots caused fear to rip across the nation, even though people as high up as Attorney General Ramsey Clark blamed the violence not on protesters but on the police.
The only method by which one might deny the similarities between the Summer of 68 and the Summer of 20 would be intentional obtusity. They’re so bloody apparent that writer/director Aaron Sorkin is unafraid of shoving them directly into our faces in his latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Despite how on the nose the connections may seem—protesters scream, “THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING,” counter protesters wield signs reading “LOCK THEM UP,” charges of communist influence are made—Sorkin’s point is larger than it seems.
While AG Clark (here played by Michael Keaton) refused to bring charges to any of the protestors following the riots, once Nixon was installed and nominated John Mitchell (John Doman) as Attorney General, all bets were off. Soon after the new administration took power, charges of conspiracy and inciting a riot were filed against eight individuals: Leftist provocateur Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his associate Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), progressive organizer Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayn) and his associate Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), co-founder of Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and activists John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins).
Those who are not students of history might be wondering why the film is entitled The Trial of the Chicago 7 as opposed to The Trial of the Chicago 8. Seale, who was denied his right to an attorney of his choosing, protested his inclusion in these charges for months, protests that were repeatedly ignored. Eventually, however, his case was separated from the other seven.
The historical reality of The Chicago 7 feels ready made for Sorkin’s brand of narrative writing. Rife with complex issues and staggering personalities, the trial quickly became a circus of conflicting identities and goals. This milieu allows Sorkin’s talents as a writer to shine. Dialog snaps at a whip fast pace as stages are set, giving the audience precious little time to get orientated before another wrench is thrown in our understanding. If it’s hard to keep up, it’s because the trial itself often made little sense.
Sorkin presents the story as easily to understand as possible, however, and the longer we’re involved with it, the more things begin to make sense. Though set primarily in court, Sorkin cuts between testimony and reenactments of the protest (often mixed with actual footage shot on the scene) to allow us to see how tensions boiled and unfolded.
Along the way, we see the conflict that develops between Hoffman and Hayden, a conflict that largely still exists within the American left. So much of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an examination of the various modes and operations of progressive politics. There’s Hoffman with his in your face publicity stunts, and Hayden with his more resigned, “work within the system to change the system” attitude. Cohen and Redmayne—who each deliver stand out performances in a film full of stand out performances—embody not the just the roles they’re meant to play but the philosophies emblematic of those individuals. In this way, Sorkin is able to critique the last 60 years of progressive politics in a way that is succinct and nuanced.
In a regular year, I’d say Cohen was a shoe-in for at least a nod from the Academy for his portrayal of Hoffman. This being the year that it is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him bring home the Oscar. Difficult though it may be to point to any single “star” of The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s not difficult to single out Cohen’s remarkable performance. Indeed, Hoffman’s own motives and methods aren’t dissimilar to Cohen’s own. Both relied on pranks and performance to make their points and arguments.
Far from simply mimicking his own life, however, Cohen’s experience as a provocateur merely informs his ability to transform into Hoffman. He gives Hoffman’s mystique a kind of lonely pathos, allowing us to identify with Hoffman not by his antics but by his ultimate humanity. (That same pathos would play out tragically for Hoffman in 1989, when the noted activist killed himself.)
While the film itself had a long development period that saw the story switch from director to director over the years (at one point, even Steven Spielberg was attached), Sorkin proves how able he is to handle a film as complex as this one from the director’s chair. Given that his only other experience with movie direction was 2017’s Molly’s Game, this is no small feat.
Sorkin has long been a fantastic writer—any one of his celebrated television efforts is proof enough of that—but the way he’s grown as a director is simply remarkable. In the process he’s given us one of the best and most important films of 2020. Through The Trial of the Chicago 7 we’re invited to see what progress looks like and how little that has changed over the last six decades. The parallels aren’t drawn so much as they are readily apparent and its presentation by Sorkin is damn near masterful. Whether you agree with him or not, he presents with a story that’s important to understand if we want to understand what’s happening today. And it’s results are powerful.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available on Netflix.