There are moments in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which opens at the Kendall Square this weekend and comes to Netflix Oct. 16, when the echoes volleying back and forth between the events of 1968-1970 and the protests and political landscape of today don’t seem like echoes at all but statements in unison. A shot of the Chicago police removing their badges before wading into crowds with clubs. The death of a Black man that would more properly be termed an execution. A witness reminding the courtroom and the audience that “the president is not the client of the attorney general.”
The movie has been written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and it’s always worthwhile for a viewer to tread carefully when history gets the Sorkin approach: big stars, big speeches, big reminders that someone or other can’t handle the truth. In a sense, though, this event comes pre-Sorkinized. The antiwar activists of the Chicago 7 (or 8) who were charged in federal court for conspiracy, incitement to riot, and other charges pertaining to the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention included some of the leading lights of the counterculture: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party, or Yippies; Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers; and David Dellinger, a radical pacifist and longtime conscientious objector who at 54 was the oldest of the group.
The trial had been ordered by newly elected President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, in part to put the youth movement stars in prison and in part as political payback for departing AG Ramsey Clark, who’d declined to prosecute. The proceedings were a circus and a shambles, with Hoffman and Rubin cutting up on the sidelines and an elderly, blustering Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) appearing far out of his depth. The trial already seemed like a movie and has become one more than a few times since. This version was meant to go before the cameras in 2007 with Steven Spielberg directing from Sorkin’s script. A writers' strike intervened, and Sorkin belatedly picked up the reins himself.
The delay may have been worth it, because “The Trial of the Chicago 7” works as both immensely watchable entertainment and a cautionary tale queasily relevant to 2020 — when it’s not stooping to the kind of slick, desk-pounding melodrama that has become a Sorkin specialty. The cast is both first-rate and downright odd, with a trio of Brits leading the charge: Eddie Redmayne as Hayden, the straitlaced golden boy of the Movement; Sacha Baron Cohen as merry prankster Abbie Hoffman; and the great Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies,” “Wolf Hall”) as defense attorney William Kunstler. Factor in Frank Langella as Judge Hoffman, Jeremy Strong — Kendall Roy on HBO’s “Succession” — as Rubin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as reluctant chief prosecutor Richard Schultz, John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac”) as the levelheaded Dellinger, and a powerful Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”) as Seale, and it’s a tough proposition to turn down.
The courtroom scenes are taken from the records and need no amplification; they remain deeply unsettling. The most electrifying moments are when Rylance’s Kunstler does battle with Langella’s seemingly senile, sometimes obstructionist judge. The most shocking sight to younger viewers unfamiliar with the material — it was shocking then — will be when Seale is taken out of the courtroom by US marshals and returned gagged and manacled to his chair, an image so ruinous to the prosecution that Schultz immediately arranged for Seale’s case to be separated from the others and declared a mistrial. The subplot (if you will) of Black Panther leader and (as portrayed here) Seale courtroom adviser Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr of “Luce”) being shot dead in his bed by Chicago police deserves its own movie and has at least two: the classic 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton” and the upcoming “Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”).
Sorkin is also on firm ground in the flashbacks set during the convention, the protests spinning out of control as Mayor Richard Daley’s police move in with tear gas and truncheons; archival footage blends easily and scarily with the re-creations. But flash forwards to Abbie Hoffman relating his trial experiences to a crowded lecture hall serve no purpose other than exposition — it’s not clear when or why they are — and the dramatized non-courtroom sequences allow the director free rein to indulge his penchant for cooked-up conflict. In this “Trial,” Redmayne’s Hayden is the tight-ass idealist and Baron Cohen’s Hoffman the class clown; the two goad each other on until they nearly come to blows, an oversimplification that’s good for drama, not so good for history.
The way Rubin’s infatuation with an undercover cop (Caitlin FitzGerald) is played for hangdog comedy seems a cheap shot, too, and Strong gives arguably the weakest performance in a solid array of talent, his line delivery leaning at times toward the Cheech and Chong end of the spectrum. (Rylance and Baron Cohen, in contrast, command their scenes.) “Trial” is so inherently compelling — and so directly germane to an America where the government labels cities “anarchist jurisdictions” and states are drawing up laws against free assembly — that it doesn’t need the frills. Let the kids know what happened the way it happened. They can handle the truth.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, John Carroll Lynch. At Kendall Square. Available on Netflix Oct. 16. 129 minutes. R (language throughout, some violence, bloody images, drug use).