The story itself is one that’s known — if at all — only in its broad strokes by many Americans (Sorkin himself said he had no idea what Spielberg was referring to when first offered the writing gig): After several anti-war and counterculture activists converged on the city of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention to make a statement against the still-ongoing Vietnam War, riots erupted and confrontations with the Chicago police ensued.
Several months later, newly-elected President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell decided to charge several of those involved — among them Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), and David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch) — with conspiracy. The legal justification to proceed with the prosecution was tenuous at best, but this was, in true mob boss fashion, as much about sending a message as anything else.
The resultant case spanned several months, stretching from April 1969 to February 1970, and it shows Sorkin’s effortless command of structure that he never gets bogged down in the sheer volume of details he has to convey. Instead, following a brief pre-title montage establishing the temporal context and laying out our main characters, the movie smartly uses the trial itself as the framework upon which to hang everything else, elucidating past events (often across very different perspectives) through the testimony of those involved.And as is so often the case with actors given the chance to speak Sorkin’s dialogue, everyone involved manages to make a meal of it. This is a cast of all-stars across the board, with not a weak link to be found. While there are moments when Redmayne and Cohen seem tongue-twisted by having to find an American accent to wrap around those words, they still effectively embody the poles of the ideological spectrum within the seven (and within the anti-war movement itself), with Hayden the establishment anti-establishmentarian and Hoffman the firebrand.
(In fact, Redmayne-as-Hayden seems at times to be channeling another Sorkin surrogate, Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, in his plea for working for change within the system.)
Meanwhile, the poles of the justice system itself are represented by Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler (who Wikipedia helpfully refers to as “an American radical lawyer”) and Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Rylance of course nabbed an Oscar for his supporting turn in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies five years ago, and he brings the same level of empathy to his role here, playing a man trying desperately to prove justice is possible even when the odds are stacked against you (“There are no political trials” in America he says repeatedly — and perhaps naively).
Meanwhile, Langella represents the equal-and-opposite counterforce to Kunstler, with his Hoffman (not, he makes sure to point out to the jury, related to the defendant) coming off like a bored tyrant, less devoted to applying the law dispassionately than using his courtroom as a fiefdom over which he has a virtually unfettered hand to do what he will. It’s hard not to laugh morbidly at the events as they unfold onscreen, and knowing it’s fairly accurate to the way things actually played out is even more difficult to process.
In addition to the actors above, an especially memorable turn comes from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party who, despite no connection to any of the other activists, found himself lumped in with the defendants (initially targeted as the “Chicago 8”) simply because the administration wanted an excuse to go after the Black Panthers. What followed, with Seale eventually forced to sit bound and gagged in court after protesting his innocence, is as shocking today as it must have been at the time, and Mateen is absolutely masterful at embodying both vulnerability and righteous outrage.
I could go on just talking about the cast, from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as lead prosecutor Richard Schultz to Michael Keaton making quite a memorable mark in two brief scenes as Johnson-era Attorney General Ramsey Clark. As mentioned earlier, it says something about Sorkin’s screenwriting prowess that so many talented players happily line up for a chance to mouth his words, even if only for a moment. But above and beyond the ensemble and the script, what Sorkin demonstrates with this film is a mastery over the form itself, using the entire cinematic apparatus to spin a tale of injustice in search of an answer.
Chicago 7: Where Are They Now?