The script didn’t change to mirror the times. The times changed to mirror the script. —Aaron Sorkin
Or, as Eugene O’Neill observed, the present and future are merely the past, “happening over and over again–now.” Indeed, the most alarming thing about the ugliness and division of events from over fifty years ago is how excruciatingly relevant they feel. If anything, the biggest dramatic moments in Chicago 7 also function as sobering indictments for how much more socio-politically dangerous our country has become since then: The past is happening once again, only this time it also bears the ominous, smoky haze of a nuclear winter. We’ll touch more on that subject a little later.
Sorkin takes us back to 1968, and the events surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Two months prior, Bobby Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet, a tragedy that also left the progressive movement without a standard-bearer. Now stuck with Hubert Humphrey atop the ticket, disparate cliques of frustrated activists descended on the convention to ensure their respective causes a sliver of prime time. As the protests became more forceful, and the demonstrators inched toward the convention site, violence erupted. Protestors bumped against cops in riot gear, resulting in a blur of tear gas and flying batons. It was an ugly moment, wherein the cultural rifts in America threatened to erupt into wholesale bloodshed.
Cut to a few months later. Richard Nixon, the Republican front-runner, has ridden this wave of chaos and confusion all the way into the White House. Ever the political savage, Nixon quickly uses his new mandate to cook a few hippies on the spit. Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) appoints Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young federal prosecutor, to round up the ringleaders of each activist group at the convention riots and put them all on trial at once. For Nixon, the newly appointed spokesman for the Silent Majority, this trial will serve as a referendum on the entire leftist agenda. Once and for all, the American people can see the anti-war movement as he does: A group of entitled, agitating beatniks, bent on destroying everything good about America.
The personalities of the so-called Chicago 7 are as diverse as their agendas. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) deploy sarcasm and satire to mock the Establishment and undermine it at every turn. (Think of a radicalized Monty Python.) Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) is a mild-mannered acolyte of RFK who determines to remake the system from within. Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) acts as his best friend and loyal lieutenant. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a pacifist and family man, dedicated to snuffing out any war anywhere. Finally, Lee Weiner and John Froines (Noah Robbins and Daniel Flahtery) are low-ranking protestors and pawns in this epic game.
As the trial begins, a carnival atmosphere quickly envelops the proceedings. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is openly belligerent toward the defendants and shows signs of cognitive impairment. This earns him the outright scorn of Abbie Hoffman and Rubin, who chuck insults and show up to court in costumes. At the same time, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panthers, gets lumped in as an eighth defendant. With no lawyer present and almost no connection to anyone else on trial, Seale is a bizarre presence–a man with no means to participate in any of this, but who can still suffer punishment from it. As Judge Hoffman loses control of his courtroom, it falls to Schultz and defense lawyers William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) to ensure that some form of justice prevails.
This could’ve been a dull, sprawling exploration of legal minutiae, or a flabby satire of our rickety, hyper-politicized legal system. But, in the hands of Aaron Sorkin, Chicago 7 crackles with energy. His trademark machine-gun dialogue suits this material perfectly. An all-world cast sinks their teeth into every line like a pack of ravenous wolves. Cohen and Redmayne make a particular impact as opposite sides of the same coin–activists united by a common goal but separated by different methods to achieve it. Rylance fills Kunstler with a well-worn savviness. His shambling, passive demeanor allows him to conceal his considerable legal skill in plain sight. The truth is, every actor is so good, it’s difficult to stop awarding them with gold stars.
One thing is clear: Despite his assertions otherwise, Sorkin absolutely molded this story of the way we were into a full-on indictment of what we have become. Richard Nixon serves as a conduit for Sorkin to channel his grievances with Donald Trump, and the parallels between the two presidents are striking: Both men allow their intellectual insecurities and ineffectual paranoia to govern their actions, to the grave detriment of everyone and everything around them. Both will leave office in some form of pitiful disgrace: Nixon’s final days were spent at the bottom of a Scotch bottle, blubbering to his aides and screaming at the White House paintings. Trump, it seems, will run out the clock as a modern-day Nero, thwacking golf balls from a sand trap while his empire burns to the ground.
Whatever your political proclivities may be, it’s impossible to watch Chicago 7 and not feel something. Outrage. Defiance. Resolve. Something. This is an intelligent, well-made, blistering cinematic experience. It’s funny and devastating, sometimes within the space of a single scene. By the film’s bravura conclusion, Sorkin has made his most subtle point: What’s past is indeed prologue. The battle for democracy is still being fought, and it can still be lost. This is one of the year’s best movies.
130 min. R.