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'The Trial Of The Chicago 7' Is Passionate, Political — And Uncannily Pertinent

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who began his career by dramatizing a military trial in "A Few Good Men," returns to the courtroom for his latest drama. It's called "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." It premieres Friday on Netflix and is already in some theaters nationwide. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Aaron Sorkin's newest drama is based on an actual trial from 1969 and relies heavily on actual transcripts, as well as a series of flashbacks to Chicago in the summer of 1968. That was when Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention. But hosted may be far from the most appropriate description. Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson had declined to seek a second term, and the person who emerged as the most likely candidate was Robert F. Kennedy, until he was assassinated the very night he won the California primary.

Two months later, the Democrats gathered in Chicago to choose a presidential candidate, but several protest groups and their leaders gathered there also to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. The Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden were there; so were the Youth International Party, the Yippies and their colorful leaders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. And the Black Panthers were there, too, although their leader, Bobby Seale, was in town only briefly. The result was a conflict in the streets that got wildly out of control after Chicago police squared off against protesters - violently.

But after Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon was elected on a law-and-order platform, he and his new attorney general, John Mitchell, set out to punish the leaders by finding a way to put them on trial. That's where Sorkin begins the story of the trial of the Chicago Seven, with a young assistant district attorney from Chicago, Richard Schultz, summoned into Mitchell's office to find a way to bring federal charges against some of the protesters. Schultz is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Mitchell by John Doman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Shultz) Sir, there are people who will see this as the Justice Department restraining free speech. And there were people who see these men as martyrs.

JOHN DOMAN: (As John Mitchell) Are any of those people in this room?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Schultz) No, sir.

DOMAN: (As John Mitchell) You're 33, and you're about to be named lead prosecutor in the most important trial in your lifetime after being handpicked by the attorney general. I'm about to do that right now. But before I do, let me ask you, how do you see them?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Schultz) Personally or...

DOMAN: (As John Mitchell) Personally.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Schultz) I see them as vulgar, anti-establishment, anti-social and unpragmatic. But none of those things are indictable.

DOMAN: (As John Mitchell) And imagine how impressed I'll be when you get an indictment.

BIANCULLI: The trial began in September 1969 and took six months. Originally, there were eight defendants, but Bobby Seale of the Panthers eventually was separated from the others, but only after being bound and gagged in court for attempting to act as his own counsel and defend himself. The trial judge, Julius Hoffman, was both impatient and imperious. He's played here by Frank Langella, who gives the strongest performance of the movie, but as an unpredictable antagonist.

The defendants aren't portrayed heroically either. Most of them, except for Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, seem to be in it for the high-stakes performance art. Abbie Hoffman has played very well by Sacha Baron Cohen. And the culture clash between the defendants and the judge is evident from Day 1. Prosecutor Schulz is delivering his opening statement to the jury when the judge interrupts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Shultz) At the defense table are the eight defendants represented by their lawyers, William Kunstler, Leonard Weinglass. Now, the defendants would tell you that they represent three different groups. They would tell you that one group is...

FRANK LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) Excuse me.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Shultz) Yes, sir?

LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) I'd like to clarify something for the jurors. There are two Hoffmans in this courtroom - the defendant, Abbie Hoffman, and myself, Judge Julius Hoffman.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Shultz) Thank you, sir.

LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) I didn't want there to be confusion on the matter.

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Man, I don't think there's much chance they're going to mix this up.

(LAUGHTER)

LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) You will address this court as Judge or Your Honor, and you will not address this court until - you will not address this court.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Richard Shultz) The defendants would tell you they represent three different groups...

LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) And the record should reflect that defendant Hoffman and I are not related.

COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Father, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: If there are any clear-cut heroes in this movie, which Sorkin both writes and directs, their defense attorney, William Kunstler, played by Mark Rylance, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, played by Michael Keaton. But mostly we see people caught up in the moment, bringing their passions and politics to bear.

The actual trial was theatrical enough that Sorkin didn't have to embellish the dialogue. But in other scenes, as when he puts the defendants in a small room to talk strategy and argue with one another, he does what he does best. He brings dialogue and verbal arguments to life. And several times in this drama, when someone is asked a very volatile question, you can't wait to see how or if it's answered. There's no you-can't-handle-the-truth explosion as in "A Few Good Men," but a few of these dialog exchanges in and out of the courtroom come close.

"The Trial Of The Chicago 7" is a study in what can happen and did happen when the police, the president and the courts all go simultaneously out of control. The strength of Sorkin's retelling of this case is that he finds flaws, as well as drama, almost everywhere he looks, yet he sees a clear division and clear differences between the two sides. On one side, there's the importance and effectiveness of political protest. On the other, there's the abuse of power by the police, the courts and even the presidency. And while Sorkin is telling a courtroom story that's more than 50 years old, it could be argued that today it seems uncannily pertinent.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like Terry's interview with Chana Joffe Walt - her podcast, "Nice White Parents," is about how some white parents who say they want integration and diversity have ended up being obstacles to true equity in our public schools - or Terry's interview with Broadway stars Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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