CAST: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, Daniel Flaherty, John Carroll Lynch, J. C. MacKenzie, Ben Shenkman, Wayne Duvall, Caitlin FitzGerald, C. J. Wilson, Damian Young, John Doman
RUNNING TIME: 129 mins
BASICALLY…: Following a clash between protestors and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, seven men are charged and put on trial for the world to watch…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The last time that Aaron Sorkin set the majority of an entire movie in a courtroom setting, Jack Nicholson famously yelled at Tom Cruise that he couldn’t handle the truth. Nearly thirty years on from A Few Good Men, Sorkin once again returns to a court of law for something that’s arguably more theatrical than even the play-based Rob Reiner drama, yet is rooted in deep political truths that could not have made it any more timely.
Sorkin’s screenplay for The Trial of the Chicago 7 – based on the real exploits surrounding the seven individuals who were charged with disrupting the peace at the 1968 Democratic National Convention – has been floating about for some time, with Steven Spielberg at one point expressing interest in directing as far back as 2007 (when Spielberg dropped out, the likes of Paul Greengrass and even Ben Stiller were considered as replacements, before Sorkin himself – in the wake of his well-received directorial debut Molly’s Game – took the reigns). In hindsight, it has probably benefited the film to be released now, via Netflix after original distributor Paramount forfeited the picture due to COVID-19 screwing up the theatrical schedules, because with 2020 being such a hot-button year for politics, civil unrest, and just about every horrible thing you could imagine, this film has come along at just the right moment.
Its discussions of political reform, racial injustice, power-hungry sociopaths, and blind ignorance towards the facts are eerily reflective of the world fifty years on from the event it’s depicting, which admittedly makes it hard to think about much else with this film, although Sorkin does know how to make a seemingly mundane courtroom drama entertaining as all hell, so at least the unsubtlety is exciting to watch.
As stated, the primary focus is on the showroom trial of seven men – among them comedian Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), political activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and anti-war counter-culturalist Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) – who were charged with conspiracy and intent to riot at the 1968 DNC in response to the government’s decision to engage war with Vietnam. With only their lawyers William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) defending them, the men face exceptional cases from the prosecution – headed by ambitious lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – and a cantankerous judge (Frank Langella) whose cruelty and unjust behaviour seemingly knows no limits.
Sorkin’s regular detractors will be quick to claw through several of the film’s lesser attributes, from its overwhelming lack of subtlety with its parallels between the politics of then and now, to the all but invisible roles for female characters in the male-driven story. While they’re busy plucking at this movie like a chicken with loose feathers, I’m much more interested in how Sorkin is able to keep things relatively engaging, inserting some of his trademark quips and rat-a-tat deliveries to liven up scenes of people just talking in a courtroom (never before have the phrases “objection” and “sustained” felt like dramatic soap-opera lines). As a director, he splices scenes together with careful precision and timing – a cleverly done opening montage brilliantly establishes the characters with everything you need to know about them before their impending trial – and has enough manic energy to play around with flashbacks and current scenes like they’re running together on the most intense treadmill you could work out on.
The cast is uniformly excellent; if nothing else, this is very much an actors’ movie, with an ensemble that couldn’t have been more perfectly placed (and designed to at the very least nab a SAG Ensemble nomination). People who you think will be great end up being just that, from Eddie Redmayne to Mark Rylance to Jeremy Strong, and even some who you don’t expect to land such a punch often surprise gloriously; Sacha Baron Cohen almost steals the entire film in his best dramatic performance to date which plays well to his natural comedic gifts (though after Grimsby, I hesitate to give him too much credit), while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gets to play an integral part in some of the film’s most emotionally powerful scenes.
Everyone is on their A-game here, from Sorkin to his ensemble, but that isn’t to say that the film is a perfect home-run. It is the kind of film that likes to remind you constantly of how these events aren’t that much different than today; although it stops short of showing modern footage, the imagery they use is so similar that it’s surprising they didn’t end up actually doing that. The ending, too, is bound to be a make-or-break point for a lot of people; it opts for a climax that is straight out of a cheesy Hollywood production, complete with an overly-inspirational orchestral score and on-the-nose dialogue that only turns up the cringe factor.
For the most part, though, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was entertaining enough to keep me invested, its lack of subtlety notwithstanding, and makes me a little more curious as to what kind of real-life courtroom escapades Sorkin can work his magic on in the future.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t always opt for subtlety, especially with its heavy political parallels to the world of then and now, but writer-director Aaron Sorkin and a great ensemble cast keep this courtroom drama consistently entertaining.