REVIEW – ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a period melodrama dripping with modern pertinency

Protestors in the streets. Riot police launching tear gas and executing brutal beatdowns. A legal system where justice rarely seems to appear. For a film that takes place in 1968, it’s impossible not to draw a direct line of comparison with the current state of America. By virtue of auspiciously appropriate timing, Aaron Sorkin‘s The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives in a social climate echoing the events of the past, blessing the film with a staggering aura of potency even a master writer like Sorkin couldn’t have foreseen.

A compelling courtroom drama brought to life by a masterful ensemble cast and Sorkin’s penchant for firecracker dialogue, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a period melodrama dripping with modern pertinency. Sorkin deftly captures one of the most infamous court cases in American history in an award-worthy film that’s both entertaining and infuriating. While Sorkin’s work behind the camera can’t quite match his efforts on the page, his sophomore directorial effort proves he’s learned a thing or two from the filmmakers who’ve adapted his words.

After a whiplash-inducing opening prologue that paints a picture of late 1960s America (the ever-increasing volume of Vietnam drafts, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the upcoming presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey), we’re introduced to a series of anti-Vietnam war activists from disconnected faction groups who all plan to descend on Chicago to rally outside the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968.

Lining up to fight for an end to the war are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society; Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman and co-founder of the Black Panther Party; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the co-founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution; and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), the pot-loving co-founders of the Youth International Party, whose members were affectionally known as Yippies.

As expected, the Chicago Police are on hand to shut down the protests, resulting in violent clashes and the arrests of all five men, along with Hayden’s best friend Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and small-time activists Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty). While the men are all released without charge, a change of presidency to following year sees newly-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) instruct ambitious young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to charge all eight men with conspiracy to cross state lines with the intent to incite rioting.

With Mitchell hellbent on making an example of the eight men, their trumped-up charges are brought to trial in front of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a ruthless, biased, and potentially incompetent magistrate who appears to be leading the trial to a pre-determined conclusion. The group’s only hope is their beleagured defence lawyer Bill Kunstler (Mark Rylance), whose initial patient manner slowly begins to crack as the trial hits roadblock after roadblock.

If it isn’t already abundantly obvious, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is essentially an acting masterclass, thanks to the impeccable ensemble cast Sorkin has at his disposal. It’s an outrageous embarrassment of riches and Sorkin takes full advantage, while his actors seize the coveted opportunity to deliver the genius that is Sorkin’s writing. There’s little doubt you will have your personal favourite amongst the cast (for the record, mine was Rylance) and Netflix is facing the impossible task as to who to push for awards consideration (my money is on Baron Cohen). That being said, an ensemble nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards is all but a lock.

While the focus of the film is naturally on the titular seven plus one, the typically brilliant Rylance can’t help but steal focus with his measured performance as a lawyer caught between remaining respectful of the court and wanting to furiously scream at every injustice thrown at his doomed clients. We share in his exacerbated reactions to the infuriating actions of Judge Hoffman, who constantly wavers between grossly incompetent and straight-up villainous. Langella’s brutal performance infuses the vile magistrate with a maddening sense of conceited self-righteousness that highlights the danger of handing power to a man who has no idea how to wield it properly.

Baron Cohen and Strong initially provide plenty of levity as a pair of goofy stoners who constantly teeter on the brink of satirical caricature. While Strong is unfortunately saddled with a character who remains in this mode for almost the entire film, Baron Cohen’s performance evolves into something completely unexpected, allowing the actor to showcase more than just his comedic chops. Hoffman is far sharper than we initially realise, and Baron Cohen takes deft delight in unveiling the surprising layers to a character we may initially dismiss.

After his recent (and hugely deserved) Emmy win for HBO’s Watchmen, Abdul-Mateen brings all the expected fury of a Black Panther in (literal) chains. With his own personal lawyer unable to attend the trial, the unrepresented Seale bears most of Judge Hoffman’s shameful ire, namely one gut-wrenching sequence where Seale is violently bound and gagged for daring to request a mistrial; something he is entirely entitled to. Abdul-Mateen brings a captivating sense of dignity and humanity to a trial severely lacking both.

Redmayne portrays Hayden as the group’s pragmatic pseudo-leader, with an assured calmness that still foolishly believes justice is attainable. While far from his meatiest role, Gordon-Levitt is solid as a prosecutor torn between his duty and the growing realisation the entire trial is nothing but a farce, even if this narrative strand feels somewhat unexplored. Late in the game, Michael Keaton drops by for just two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, yet still threatens to effortlessly steal the entire film. Keaton purposely slows Sorkin’s speedy dialogue, allowing every word to hit with different power to everything preceding it.

There are few better screenwriters working today than Sorkin and The Trial of the Chicago 7 will undoubtedly score the writer his fourth Oscar screenplay nomination (and quite possibly his second win). But Sorkin the writer and Sorkin the director are still two very different beasts. While his work behind the camera here far exceeds his messy debut Molly’s Game, he still has an inclination for unnecessary theatrics that slightly damage the final product, particularly the film’s closing moments, which feel like something from a movie-of-the-week and not an awards season contender.

The structure constantly fluctuates between the trial and the events surrounding the Democratic Convention, which creates an absolute nightmare for editor Alan Baumgarten. Thankfully, his crisp editing perfectly melds the two timelines together, with Sorkin wisely seeking to introduce his players before taking us back to everything they experienced on the frontlines of the protest. Sorkin’s direction still has a tendency to fall into occasional melodrama, typified by a frenetic sequence introducing a series of the prosecution’s witnesses, but he’s blessed with actors who elevate these moments and save the film from ever deviating too far into such overly-theatrical territory.

At one point towards the climax of the film, Baron Cohen’s Hoffman remarks, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by terrible people.” It’s moments like this where you can’t avoid how Sorkin’s biting screenplay has taken an infamous event from five decades ago and brutally compare it to America circa 2020. As philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sorkin wants us to watch, remember, learn, and avoid America’s frustrating continuance to repeat the mistakes of her past.

With a stellar ensemble cast, a masterfully crafted screenplay, and an engaging, rousing, and timely true story, The Trial of the Chicago 7 will unquestionably be a major player this awards season. For a film that’s been cooking in Sorkin’s head for over a decade to arrive at this very moment is extremely fortuitous. Even with its period setting, it perfectly captures the current social and political climate, making this one of the year’s most important films.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Producers: Marc Platt. Stuart Besser, Matt Jackson, Tyler Thompson
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Production Design: Shane Valentino
Costume Design: Susan Lyall
Music: Daniel Pemberton

Editing: Alan Baumgarten
Running Time: 129 minutes
Release Date: 16th October 2020 (Worldwide)