Trial of the Chicago 7, The: What You Need to Know about Sorkin’s Powerful Dramatization of the 1968 Events

Trial of the Chicago: Writer Aaron Sorkin makes huge leap forward as director of a large, star-driven–Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance–in his timely chronicle of the legal media circus, sparked by the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest.



THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 Still 9 - Publicity H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

From left: Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Aaron Sorkin’s second feature as writer-director, The Trial of the Chicago 7, revisits the famous infamous six-month courtroom circus, based on charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The Netflix feature was acquired from Paramount and opened in select theaters Sept. 25 ahead of its Oct. 16 bow on the streaming platform.

Sorkin’s script originally was intended for Spielberg, but the 2007 WGA strike caused the project to be suspended and the original director to move on to other commitments. Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller were both considered as possible replacements until Sorkin was encouraged by Spielberg to direct it himself, having made a debut in 2018 with Molly’s Game (a rather weak movie).

The movie is defined by witty dialogue, significant characters, factoids, time shifts and multi-perspective narrative.

It surely is not eh first work about this subject. The Chicago Seven chapter has inspired films, from Haskell Wexler’s superb docu-fiction of the DNC protests, Medium Cool, Brett Morgen’s mix of archival footage with animated scenes based on court transcripts, Chicago 10.

Sorkin dramatizes with varying degrees of success several crucial events in a mosaic-like structure that ultimately assembles together the tumultuous incident in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night of August 28, 1968.

We get to see Chicago cops remove their badges and name tags as tensions mount in a clash with protestors.

The basis of the court case, which unfolds against the protest groups while evidence points to police as the antagonists escalating the violence, bears ultra-relevance to the protest and unrest movements that have shaken the country in recent months. Tear gas, riot clubs and militarized federal troops have given 2020 an uneasy resemblance to 1968.

Judge Julius Hoffman, superbly played by Frank Langella with a mix of authority and belligerence is one of the ensemble’s many powerful characterizations.

Assisted by editor Alan Baumgarten, Sorkin recreates the historical timeline leading up to the protest and the principal players involved in a seven-minute pre-title sequence interweaving news footage with new material.

President Johnson had increased U.S. troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000, doubling the monthly draft call to 35,000. Fear and outrage were heightened in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, and liberal Americans were shocked by the mass killing of innocent Vietnamese, shown graphically for the first time on TV in their living rooms on a nightly basis.


‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ Trailer: “The Whole World Is Watching” Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Aaron Sorkin Drama

Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was too close to Republican opponent, and eventual winner, Richard Nixon, in his strategy towards Vietnam. Thus, activist groups mobilized to stage a peaceful demonstration in Chicago during the DNC. They included Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Youth International Party, or “Yippies,” fronted by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron-Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the scoutmaster pacifist head of the National Mobilization to End the Vietnam War, aka The Mobe.

Two other figures, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), were also among those on trial.  They have no idea how they ended up there–Weiner observes on the first day in court, “This is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

The eighth defendant was Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national chairman of the Black Panther Party, despite being in Chicago for a brief period that night: “I made a speech, had a chicken pot pie and flew back to Oakland.”

Sorkin’s script touches on raw nerves with his insights into how the Panthers were exploited in the trial, putting a Black man among the defendants to scare the jury.

Two jurors, identified by the defense as potentially on their side, suffer when their families receive threatening letters signed by the Panthers, despite this being inconsistent with the organization.

The murder during the trial of Chicago chapter Panthers chair Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) sends shock waves.

The shameful way in which Seale was treated by Judge Hoffman, the brutal scenes leading to the declaration of mistrial in his case are also compelling.


At a time when Attorney General William Barr perverts justice almost on a daily basis, Sorkin gets under our skin early on by presenting Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell (John Doman), as a hard-ass bulldog. He’s on a personal crusade against “the schoolboys,” as he calls the students pushing for social change. But he’s even more driven by a vendetta against his predecessor in the job, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton, making the most of a brief appearance), a Civil Rights proponent who declined to press charges against the protesters.

When young prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is summoned to Mitchell’s office to take the case, he makes his reservations clear. The AG wants the protesters tried under the Rap Brown Law, an anti-riot act passed by Southern whites in Congress to limit the free speech of Black activists by clamping down on agitators acting outside their own communities. Schultz, who is bright and ambitious but also ethical, points out that witnesses say police, not protesters, started the violence. “And you’ll dismantle them, and you’ll win,” Mitchell snarls back.

On the other side is defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance in peerless form), assisted by Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). They spend much of the early weeks of the trial mediating among the discordant personalities of their defendants, most of all Seale, whose lawyer is in hospital and who is denied the right to represent himself by Judge Hoffman.

Abdul-Mateen II brings anger to his scenes, as does Harrison as Hampton, who inflames the Judge by whispering legal counsel in Seale’s ear.  The friction between Kunstler and Judge Hoffman allows for some thrilling dramatic exchanges between actors Marc Rylance and Langella.


The focus is on the initially begrudging respect between Hayden (who was still alive and served as the script’s advisor, and Abbie Hoffman, two men with vastly different approaches to common goals.

The former is serious to a fault, as is sidekick Davis, keeping daily tally of American deaths in Vietnam. Tom, who maintains respectful attitude, dismisses Abbie and Jerry as attention-seeking court jesters.

The film’s sly humor comes from Baron Cohen, who should earn a Supporting Actor Oscar nod, for delivering playfully one-liners without ever trivializing them or the events that they reference. Baron Cohen brings a touch of the comic to Hoffman’s irreverent addresses to the crowds.

Ace cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s has shot striking images of volatile moments, on the street, in the park, and in the court, intercut with archival footage.

Sorkin has made a grippingly powerful and visually striking tale, grounded in story and character, and rather coherent considering the messy events.

The movie may be too conventional in adhering to the structures well-made courtroom drama, a la Sorkin’s script of the 1992 Oscar nominated A Few Good Men.

However, there’s no denying the relevancy of its message about the constitutional American right to protest, and the urgent demand for justice.