If Sacha Baron Cohen’s (BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM) brand of humour isn’t your thing, you have a very different option these days. You can watch the comedian in a dramatic role in Oscar® and Emmy® award winning writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s (STEVE JOBS; TV’s THE WEST WING) new movie, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cohen plays Yippie (Youth International Party) leader Abbie Hoffman, one of the social activists caught up in the American government’s show trial following the bloody crackdown on protestors outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The role seems perfectly suited for Cohen and it’s not because both men are Jewish. When Hoffman wasn’t on stage condemning the Vietnam War, he was staging over-the-top stunts in full view of the media to decry social injustice. Even his 1971 book, Steal This Book, indirectly advises readers not to buy the book but to steal it from someone who did.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in 1968, America was knee-deep in a war with Vietnam that bitterly divided public opinion in the US. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April and the heir apparent to the Democratic Party and perhaps the White House as well, Robert Kennedy, was gunned down just eight weeks later. In August of that year, the Democratic Party held their convention in Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley let it be known that there was no way his city was going to be the setting for protests. His proclamation, however, did not stop the Yippies, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (aka “the Mobe”), the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers (NOT the MARVEL superhero!) and other groups from heading to the city to participate in what were supposed to be peaceful demonstrations. The police and the Illinois National Guard were called in, they cracked a few heads open and Hoffman, along with fellow Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, SDS leader Tom Hayden, the Mobe leader David Dellinger, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, and three others were collectively charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot. Together, they became known as the “Chicago 8” and their trial became national, if not global, news.
Sorkin apparently first wrote the screenplay 14 years ago but, for various reasons, it sat on the shelf until recent events in Minnesota, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Washington, DC spurred him on to tweak the script and finally get the film made. In fact, Sorkin has said that THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 isn’t as much about the events in 1968 as it is about the events that have taken place in the US over the past year.
Sorkin assembled an A-team cast for his project. In addition to Cohen, Eddie Redmayne (the FANTASTIC BEASTS franchise; THE DANISH GIRL; THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) plays Hayden, Jeremy Strong (THE BIG SHORT; SELMA; THE JUDGE) plays Rubin, John Carroll Lynch (JACKIE; TV’s THE DREW CAREY SHOW) plays Dellinger, recent Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (US; AQUAMAN; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN; BAYWATCH; TV’s WATCHMEN) plays Seale, Mark Rylance (DUNKIRK) plays defense attorney William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (7500; THE INTERVIEW; DON JON) plays prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz, Michael Keaton (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING; SPOTLIGHT) plays former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark, and Frank Langella (GRACE OF MONACO; NOAH; TV’s THE AMERICANS) plays Judge Julius Hoffman. In typical Sorkin fashion, each actor has his moment in the spotlight with verbose and highly articulate speeches but it’s Rylance and Langella who steal the film away from the others. Not surprisingly, Sorkin does take liberties with the events as they happened, shifting timelines and who said what around for dramatic effect. He mostly gets it right but where he gets it wrong is with the portrayal of Schultz. In a recent interview, Schultz himself said that he had no qualms about his role in the trial. He was not sympathetic to the activists at all and his reputation as the government’s “pit bull” was well earned. Sorkin also fails to mention in the film’s epilogue that US attorney-general John Mitchell, the man who brought these men to court in the first place, was later sent to prison for his role in the 1972 Watergate affair.
All in all though, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is both highly entertaining and extremely educational, not just for what happened in Chicago in 1968 and what’s happening in other American cities today, but also for what has happened and is continuing to happen in other cities around the world where the right to protest is being stifled, often with brutal consequences.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is streaming now on Netflix. It’s definitely worth watching.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, October 30th, 8:30 am HK time!
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