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On Demand: ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ reminds us history repeats itself

Matt Shiverdecker
Special to the American-Statesman
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

This week, we look at a remarkable new release available for streaming later this week.

Available on streaming services

"The Trial of the Chicago 7": While it feels as though we are currently in an unprecedented time in history for political upheaval and distrust in government, the new feature film from writer/director Aaron Sorkin fully illustrates that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

In this riveting courtroom drama, he takes us back to 1969 where seven Americans were charged by the federal government of conspiracy in the wake of the violent riots that occurred in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the transition from Lyndon B. Johnson to the Richard Nixon administration, the shift in power allowed the incoming Attorney General John Mitchell (later jailed for his role in the Watergate scandal) to put a target on these disparate protesters to argue that they had all joined forces to purposefully incite violence.

Sorkin is a masterful storyteller with an uncanny knack for sharp dialogue — fans will be pleased to see several key "walk and talk" scenes early on in the film. The actual trial scenes that make up the majority of the film are drawn from the original court transcripts. Some of the in-between moments have embellishments to boost Sorkin's obvious desire to tie this infamous blight in our nation's past to events that are happening today, but this is tautly edited and highly engaging throughout. One of the more effective choices is to blend in black and white archival footage during key moments, especially of the police attacking protestors. This drives home the narrative and reinforces the brutality that is still occurring across the country.

The screenplay is strong, but the film soars on the strength of its tremendous cast. It's a well-rounded group of established actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne alongside fiery performances from up-and-coming actors like Jeremy Strong ("Succession"), Yahya Abdul Mateen II ("Watchmen") and Kelvin Harrison Jr. ("Luce").

After the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed theatrical business, Paramount Pictures sold the film off to Netflix. While it is hard to imagine what awards season is going to look like for 2020, it will be shocking if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen isn't a strong contender in the best supporting actor race for his superior dramatic work here. It's hard to break out in such a strong ensemble, but he is the film's secret weapon with his portrayal of counterculture icon and activist Abbie Hoffman.

Make it a double feature along with "Steal This Movie" (streaming free on Tubi) or "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" (streaming free on Kanopy and Tubi).

(In select theaters now; arrives Oct. 16 on Netflix.)

Frank Langella as Julius Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."