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Movie review: The revolution is alive and well in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Ed Symkus
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Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) get ready to lead protestors through Chicago.

If you’re old enough to remember the chaotic, violent events that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the tumultuous, seemingly endless trial that followed it, you probably recall certain details of what went on, and undoubtedly know how it turned out. If that’s so, there’s still plenty of reason to watch this terrific narrative of that unsettling time.

If this is a story you’re unfamiliar with, don’t go Googling it first, don’t even watch the trailer. It’s a film to get wrapped up in, to get involved with. It’s so much more interesting if you don’t know how it ends.

So why bother with it if you do know? Three words: Writing, directing, acting. Kudos to Aaron Sorkin for the first two, and to (must choose carefully here) Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, and Frank Langella on the third.

The trial - which is the focus of the film, with the Chicago riots shown in flashbacks - was a political and cultural event that took place in a time of social upheaval. The war in Vietnam, its American casualties and the draft were in the headlines every day. The call to protest in Chicago was a demand for the end of the war. But it did not play out the way anyone had planned or hoped, at least on the part of the protestors (estimates of the number there range from 10,000 to 16,000). The question remains, all these years later, of what was on the minds of Mayor Richard J. Daley and what orders he gave to his police force. History records that the result was pandemonium. Crowds of protestors were anxious and angry; frustrated cops were at the ready with clubs and tear gas. Overreactions ensued, on both sides.

Five months later, the trial of the group that became known as the Chicago 8 (later, due to courtroom circumstances, reduced to the Chicago 7) began. The charges against them were of conspiracy to cross state lines in order to incite violence. The main players were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, from the Youth International Party; Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, from Students for a Democratic Society; Dave Dellinger, from the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; Bobby Seale, from the Black Panther Party; defense counsel William Kunstler; prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz; and Federal District Judge Julius Hoffman.

The film consists of a fast-moving series of character studies of all of the above, and quite a few more. Most of the spotlight is grabbed by Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, who is portrayed as funny, reckless, and outrageous in the courtroom scenes, yet is shown to be serious about revolution in the name of ending the war during the flashbacks. Eddie Redmayne gives us a Tom Hayden who believes that his very different approach to revolution is the one that really matters, and tries to be the group’s voice of reason. The character of Judge Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) will go down in movie lore as one of the best roles Frank Langella has been given, and he plays it with aplomb. He provides the film with an unrepentant villain, a humorless judge who demands decorum in his courtroom, but seems to be making up his own rules and, upon realizing that he can’t keep control, proceeds to hand out counts of contempt to defendants and the defense counsel as if they were candy on Halloween.

Though Sorkin is skilled at writing great dialogue (Remember “The West Wing”?), it needs to be made clear that much of what’s heard here is verbatim from the courtroom transcripts (where no cameras were permitted during the trial). But it’s Sorkin’s method of putting the film together, with different scenes from different places and time periods, that results in the compelling and engrossing way of getting the story told.

Whether or not the defendants did break the law - at least the law they’re accused of breaking - is still a gray area. But the film is a presentation of a case of extreme injustice, capped off by a provocative and rousing ending.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” premieres on Netflix on Oct. 16.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

With Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Rated R