“The Trial of the Chicago 7” reinvigorates the courtroom drama
IN THE 1990s the courtroom drama was one of Hollywood’s most reliable and versatile genres. No fewer than two dozen were released that decade, including Oscar winners (“Philadelphia”), blockbusters (“A Time to Kill”) and even the occasional comedy (“My Cousin Vinny”). The genre’s ubiquity extended beyond the silver screen. Court TV, a cable network, attracted viewers thanks to its wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the televised impeachment of President Bill Clinton is remembered as one of the decade’s touchstones.
The genre waned in the 2000s but is now in vogue once more. In 2016 “American Crime Story” dramatised Mr Simpson’s trial and a forthcoming season of the anthology series will revisit Mr Clinton’s hearings. “Marshall” (2017) chronicled one of Thurgood Marshall’s early cases in Connecticut; “When They See Us” (2019) revisited the events of the Central Park jogger case. Now Aaron Sorkin, who helped set off the original trend with “A Few Good Men” in 1993, has returned with “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, a smart, slick retelling of the legal case against seven anti-war activists who clashed with police outside the Democration National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
As is often the case in Mr Sorkin’s work, the characters are defined almost entirely by their political viewpoints. The defendants come to Chicago with the same goal—to protest against the Vietnam war—but they differ in their preferred tactics. The hippyish Abbie Hoffman (played brilliantly by Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Ruben (Jeremy Strong) favour staged “happenings” to attract the media and bring attention to their ideas. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), a buttoned-up activist who keeps his hair short and his temper in check, loathes his attention-grabbing peers and prefers to appeal to the average American. “For the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics,” he blurts out, “they’re going to think of you and your idiot followers, passing out daisies to protesters.”
The film is chock-full of celebrated actors, each of whom makes the most of their screen time. Mark Rylance embodies controlled anger as William Kuntzler, the defence lawyer; Frank Langella succeeds as the oppressive (and perhaps senile) judge; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is impressive as the young assistant district attorney who is conflicted about his task of prosecuting the activists under a new law—one designed by white southerners to restrict the movements of black activists. It is no coincidence that the prosecution has included Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther leader, among the defendants, even though he was not present for the alleged riots.
It is a story laden with heavy themes, but Mr Sorkin wrangles them into an electrifying film. Instead of simply showing a witness’s testimony and cross-examination, he cuts from the stand to a re-enactment of the events being described and then to Hoffman cracking jokes during one of his public speeches. In the hands of a less proficient storyteller, it would be easy to lose the thread, but Mr Sorkin keeps it taut thanks to well-timed cutaways and a keen understanding of the viewer’s attention span.
Indeed, his focus on a criminal trial as political theatre allows him to make a different kind of courtroom drama. “The whole world is watching,” chants the crowd like a Greek chorus, and the defendants take note. Right from the start, Hoffman and Ruben are committed to making a show of the trial, to undermine what they understand to be a corrupted system and to keep attention on their anti-war beliefs. They hold provocative press conferences outside the courtroom and consistently interrupt the judge from the defendant’s box. They know that will increase the length of their sentence, but the larger goal of disruption is more important to them. (In this “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a story particularly suited to Mr Sorkin, who is often criticised for verbal grandstanding at the expense of story: here the verbosity is the point.)
The courtroom dramas of the 1990s often reinforced trust in the rule of law by showing a brilliant lawyer correcting an injustice by working within the American constitution. Today, amid heated disputes over the politics of the Supreme Court and increased awareness of how systemic racism has warped due process, for some viewers such a tale might feel too unrealistic to be satisfying. Mr Sorkin has instead made a film that, while set in 1968, is about America in 2020, when creating a spectacle can once again be the best way to be taken seriously.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is streaming on Netflix now
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/10/20/the-trial-of-the-chicago-7-reinvigorates-the-courtroom-drama
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