Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the question it leaves unanswered.


The second I heard about The Trial of the Chicago 7, I knew I needed to watch it. I have a deep interest in legal films, the 1968 Democratic Convention and everything related to Aaron Sorkin. Written and directed by Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has everything I’ve come to expect from him: witty dialogue, poignant political themes and sharply-drawn characters. In this film, though, his main characters are real-life anti-war activists Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin. The plot revolves around their arrests and subsequent trial over charges of conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. 

The main reason the movie works is the wonderful ensemble cast and the dynamics they produce. Sacha Baron Cohen, typically known for his comedic roles, as Hoffman, Academy Award-winning actor Eddie Redmayne as Hayden and Emmy Award-winning Jeremy Strong as Rubin are just the tip of the iceberg. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance both crafted amazing supporting performances, with Abdul-Mateen as Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and Rylance as civil rights attorney William Kunstler, respectively.

Headshot of author.

By Mia Doron, ’23. Photo by Bella VanMeter, ’22.

Over the course of the trial, Hoffman and Hayden argue over the meaning of revolution. Hoffman and his Youth International Party co-founder Jerry Rubin believe that revolution is marching in the streets and holding protests, while Hayden argues that real change is impossible without winning elections and passing legislation. Their underlying argument is: what is revolution?

After finishing the film, I pondered the question for several days. As an activist, I have struggled to find an answer. In many conversations I have had, fellow organizers have said that participation in electoral politics is futile as it never leads to real change. However, I have come to a personal definition of revolution, or at least an answer to the question posed in the film. It is nearly impossible to dismantle a system from the outside. In order to create lasting, real change, we need to both pass legislation and protest in the streets. These options are often presented as mutually exclusive, but they are truly two sides of the same coin.

There is an exclamation, or a warning, repeated in the film. “The whole world is watching!” It is shouted in flashbacks of the riots, at the defendants as they walk up the courthouse steps and at the country as a whole. Throughout the film, this sentiment stuck with me. It is just as relevant now as it was in 1968. However, instead of protesting the Vietnam War, there is a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives, deadly police brutality and an unprecedented election. The year 2020 will go down in history books, as will 2021 as we continue to grapple with coronavirus and deadly racism. Just remember, exactly like in 1968, the whole world is watching.