PLOT In the wake of riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, seven counterculture figures find themselves halted into court.
CAST Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne
RATED R (language and some violence)
WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
BOTTOM LINE A compelling re-creation of a notorious trial that galvanized and even defined the 1960s.
Aaron Sorkin’s "The Trial of the Chicago 7," about the aftermath of a 1968 riot that took place against a backdrop of police brutality, racial injustice and a pending election, arrives with bitterly fortuitous timing. Remove the issue of the Vietnam War and add a deadly pandemic, and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" could be set in the here and now.
This version of one of the most galvanizing (and convoluted) episodes of the ‘60s is pure Sorkin. Ever since his feature debut, "A Few Good Men," Sorkin has been writing characters who sound like debate-team captains (TV’s "The West Wing," David Fincher’s "The Social Network"), so why not return to the genre? In his second outing as a writer-director (following "Molly’s Game"), Sorkin picks a top-notch cast to deliver his trademark machine-gun dialogue.
At the defendants’ table are Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, the young radical who will become a California State senator; John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, a conscientious objector and activist; Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, a lovable anarchist; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers; and a very good Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie icon Abbie Hoffman (an inspired choice; it’s one societal prankster playing another). All stand accused of conspiring to incite a riot outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
By all accounts, the trial was both circus and disaster, led by a clearly prejudiced judge, Julius Hoffman (played to the villainous hilt by Frank Langella). His coincidental surname gave the defendant Hoffman ample opportunity for mockery; the judge responded by doling out contempt charges like parking tickets. His disdain extended to defense attorney William Kunstler (an excellent Mark Rylance) and to Seale, whose outbursts he silenced, to everyone's horror, with a gag and chains, a moment the film treats with both outrage and sorrow.
As a director, Sorkin is more than capable; but he's a writer first, and he’s at no loss for words here. When prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (a countercast Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins sniffing around for anti-American sentiment, Abbie Hoffman muses, "I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before." Seale, in jail, dismisses Hayden as just another white kid flipping off his parents; "You can see how that’s a little different from a rope on a tree," he says. And Hayden packs a whole treatise on leftism into two lines when he snarls at Abbie Hoffman, "I don’t have time for cultural revolution. It distracts from actual revolution."
Sorkin uses a fair amount of fiction to give the story a note of triumph. He puts a symbolic speech into Hayden’s mouth, just before his sentencing, that doesn’t ring terribly true. There’s another moment, however, that does. It comes when Dellinger, the lifelong pacifist, loses his cool, punches a bailiff in the face — and is instantly overcome with remorse. It’s an eloquent reminder of what happens when anger controls not only a person, but a country.