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Anti-American circus: ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ recounts obscene, chilling courtroom drama

Sacha Baron Cohen, center left, and Jeremy Strong in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

“So your brother’s bound and gagged

“And they’ve chained him to a chair

“Won’t you please come to Chicago just to sing

“In a land that’s known as freedom, how can such a thing be fair

“Won’t you please come to Chicago for the help that we can bring.” – Graham Nash, “Chicago,” 1971

The 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 has been the subject of more than two dozen songs and many TV and film interpretations, but leave it to the brilliant Aaron Sorkin to deliver an electric and profound and important take on one of the most infamous and historic legal chapters in the history of Chicago and this nation.

Who better than Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”) to give us an instant classic of a courtroom drama, filled with crackling exchanges and stunning outbursts? One might be excused for believing Sorkin is engaging in melodramatic histrionics, but much of this story is rooted in fact. A U.S. district judge really did order a defendant to be bound and gagged in a 20th century American courtroom. Two defendants really did appear in court wearing judicial robes, and when ordered to lose the robes, they were sporting Chicago police uniforms underneath. The former attorney general of the United States really did testify as a witness for the defense – only to have the judge bar the testimony.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” opens with the obligatory turbulent ’60s explainer, with archival footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing a doubling of the national draft call from 17,000 to 35,000 per month; the televised draft lottery; news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy; re-creations of young men opening their mailboxes and receiving their draft notices, etc. In rapid fashion, we meet antiwar activists from separate factions who are planning to convene at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago, including Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), leader of the Students for a Democratic Society; clown princes Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) of the Youth International Party, aka Yippies; Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national chairman of the Black Panther Party; and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), who’s a generation older than the rest but shares their passion and commitment.

Not that they share similar attitudes. Rubin and Hoffman say Chicago will be a great place to party and get, um, lucky. Hayden believes in old-school, traditional protest. Dellinger reassures his family, telling them “(Mayor) Daley is not going to let his city turn into a theater of war,” while Seale scoffs at nonviolent protest, exclaiming, “(Martin Luther King) is dead. He had a dream; well, now he has a f—ing bullet in his head. Martin’s dead, Malcolm’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully. We’re gonna try something else.”

All hell breaks loose, with the Chicago police and protesters clashing violently in and around Grant Park. A year later, the aforementioned protest leaders, along with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), are charged with conspiracy to cross lines with the intention of inciting riots. (Weiner, acknowledging he’s a relatively minor figure in the proceedings, quips: “This is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”)

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” nimbly alternates between scenes of the 1969 trial, re-creations and archival footage of the protests, and defense strategy sessions at the Hyde Park home of veteran liberal attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), dubbed “Conspiracy Office” by the volunteers answering the phones. Meanwhile, rising star Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quietly puts together the prosecution case, despite personal misgivings about whether there should even be a trial.

A perfectly cast Frank Langella looms large over the proceedings as Judge Julius Hoffman, who rules the courtroom with a heavy gavel, handing out contempt of court citations like parking tickets, growling his contempt for the defendants and their attorneys, and sometimes appearing addled. Hoffman, Rubin and Seale disrupt the proceedings with their outbursts, but it’s Judge Hoffman who turns the trial into a Constitution-disregarding, obscenely anti-American circus. It’s Judge Hoffman who orders bailiffs to “take [Seale] into a room and deal with him as he should be dealt with.” When Seale is wheeled back into the courtroom, bound and gagged, it’s a breathtakingly offensive moment to anyone who believes in the American justice system.

Writer-director Sorkin peppers the screenplay with choice dialogue, e.g., Abbie Hoffman on the stand telling the prosecutor (as he did in real life), “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” or the ultraliberal Kunstler telling Dellinger why he won’t put him on the stand: “You were a conscientious objector during World War II. Even I want to punch you.” Michael Keaton shows up late and shows up strong as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who commands every room he’s in like the Marine he was, and even though Hoffman wouldn’t allow the jury to hear what Clark had to say, we have that privilege.

Certain events are rearranged from the factual timelines, and yes, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” exercises poetic license. This is not a documentary; it’s a dramatization of events that resonates with great power while containing essential truths, and it’s one of the best movies of the year.

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