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The Trial of the Chicago 7 Review: The new Aaron Sorkin film redefines the word engaging by delivering an extremely topical film.

Sagnik Kumar Gupta

Audio Review

Back in the late 1968’s, a group of students and protesters of the ongoing Vietnam war were falsely charged with starting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What followed was several months of biased trial against the eight (later seven) members who belonged to different political congregations. The screenplay of this film which was first written back in 2007 about an incident that occurred back in 1968 is unsurprisingly but scarily too relevant even today.

One can quite easily point out the glaring similarities that the film shares with the present-day situation in the world and more specifically India. Student leaders and some peaceful protesters framed for crimes, subjected to police and state-operated brutalities for deeds not of their own, and stripped of their basic right to dissent in order to set an example for the opposition (especially the youth) is just an everyday event in the far-right regime that our country is facing over the last few years. The mistrials are also an attempt to divert the attention of the citizen from the pressing issues that the country faces and surprisingly this trick has aged so well that it is as effective today as it was forty years back.

Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines were charged by the Federal government with crossing state lines for conspiring to incite a riot. The case came to court in September 1969. The Trial of the Chicago 7 follows the trial until the verdict in February 1970. The pace of the screenplay at the opening of the film is quick and it is accompanied by sharp editing to give us a feel of the rush and the unrest during the turbulent time of the dissent that the government was facing from the youth. Sorkin uses techniques that we have previously seen in films like Argo and creates the opening sequence of the film by interjecting real-life footage of the incidents in order to familiarize us with that period in American History. A lot of conversations take place between different characters during the initial sequences but there is a sense of hurry that the creators have managed to create without compromising on the effectiveness of the dialogues. Once the proceedings of the court start the pace of the screenplay recedes in accordance with the pace of the proceedings, but in this process in no way making the screenplay less engaging or decreasing the tension that is mounting with every scene.

As we have seen in The Social Network, Sorkin handles the court drama ( here political trials ) with ease and expertise because it bears too many similarities with the “playwright” kind of writing that Sorkin specializes at. His characters speak eloquently using well worded and sometimes witty dialogues with brooding confidence because that is generally the environment of a courtroom. The screenplay written by Sorkin himself perfectly brings out the different unprecedented hardships that the group faces along with the strained and complex relationship that they have among themselves. Sorkin had defined the earlier decade by writing arguably the most engaging screenplay and he doesn’t falter this time and must just be one his way to redefine another decade.

The film touches upon various subjects like police brutality, systematic racism, implications of war, the importance of dissent and the need for cultural revolution among others. The film doesn’t for once feel overcrowded with ideas as the director/screenwriter has done a wonderful job in etching out scenes that carefully portray every theme with the aid of masterful shot division. The scene choreography is just flawless with the angry mob protest scenes done to perfection which further highlights the amount of control the artist has over his craft.

The mistrial against Bobby Seal and his gagging in the court of law is a pivotal point in the script. For almost an hour the creator made us feel that the biggest problem and injustice that was occurring in the court of law was being levied against the seven white men but aided by a very powerful scene we are forced to revaluate ourselves and our thought process. This stands out as the biggest positive of the film as it remains sympathetic in its gaze towards the protestors but doesn’t shy away from recognizing and searching for greater truths in the story and the society through introspection. Sorkin carefully, impartially and meticulously questions each and every plot point of the film in spite of his humane sympathetic gaze.

Each cast members shine on their own merit and perfectly complement the rest of the ensemble. Saha Baron Cohen plays a Lenny Bruce ish character and is perfectly complemented by Jeremy Strong. They are the founders of YIPPIE — a bunch of stoned, rock music loving peaceful revolutionaries who dream to bring about a cultural revolution. Joseph Gordon Levitt and Yahya Abdul Matten II as very dependable and truly effective in the emotional scenes . Micheal Keaton is very effective in his special appearance and I wonder if anyone but him could have brought out the cheeky sly gravitas of the character. But the people who stand out from the rest of the cast are Eddie Redmayne as the idealistic student leader, Mark Rylance as the defense lawyer and Frank Lamella as the racist and frankly disgusting judge. To be very honest for the longest time after seeing the movie, I had so much hate for Franks’s character that I felt like punching him in his face- such was the magic of his performance.

This film will stand out from its contemporary courtroom dramas because of its sheer timeless relevance and the masterful treatment of the craft. The film is a quintessential courtroom drama with a wonderfully tear-jerking climax which in it itself is very powerful and its effect is amplified by the chants of “The whole world is watching.” This film is a journey through the angst and the psyche of a revolutionary wonderfully captured by Sorkin in a balanced manner. The film reminds us once again how time and history cyclically repeats itself until and unless we start to recognize and learn from our past.

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Alternate Take

Alternate Take

A space for reviews, retrospectives, analyses, interviews around all things cinema, standing left of the field.