“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (MA) ****
WINDING up his perceptive study of writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s movie analysing a trial not criminal, not civil, but driven by a powerful political motive, American critic Peter Bart observed that “protest is a towering topic in a political climate that is more contentious than ever”.
Sorkin’s film opened in the US a mere week before it began its Australian season. We know how Sorkin deals on screen with the political landscape in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” (in case you don’t know, the quotation is the last two lines of the US national anthem). Think “The West Wing”, 155 episodes of it, great TV.
A film dealing solely with a neither criminal nor civil real trial may seem a bit dry and specialised, particularly when it unfolds in a judicial system the procedural nuts and bolts of which differ in detail from ours.
The issue was protest against the war in Vietnam, which continued for five years after the trial. A war from which Uncle Sam limped home a loser with a huge bill in blood and treasure. Two human generations have come since the trial. They’ve had other issues to deal with. Still do.
There’s great acting from a dedicated cast. On the bench, Frank Langella as Justice Julius Hoffman, a no-nonsense tyrant prone to issuing contempt citations. Mark Rylance as defence counsel William Kunstler, waging an exhausting juridical conflict. As Tom Hayden, social activist, later husband of Jane Fonda, Oscar-winning Brit Eddie Redmayne. As yippie activist and Flower Power movement proponent Abbie Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen. As Ramsey Clark, US Attorney General under the previous administration, Michael Keaton.
Sorkin’s staging of the film, full of anti-war protesters, Chicago cops, National Guard units, courtroom spectators, is masterly. It all adds up to a great film, by no means populist cinema, and all the better on that account.