Seems like a ton of movies coming out in the midst of this pandemic are trying very hard to tell us something critically important about our past, present… and future. Count among them: The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film occasionally teeters on a high horse, as each member of the A-list cast gets a turn to shine in the Aaron Sorkin spotlight of zippy dialogue imbued with a mix of cynical and serious political and philosophical debate. But overall, it’s an interesting and important story to revisit, as it is based on true events eerily similar to current ones. And Sorkin does have a knack for transforming a courtroom drama into a crowd-pleasing spectacle.
The star-studded film written – and directed – by Sorkin is a courtroom drama intercut with scenes from the demonstrations and clashes that turned what was intended to be a peaceful protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention into a battleground with police and the National Guard, resulting in a gross, politically-motivated miscarriage of justice.
The organizers of the protest – including Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. Seale’s trial was ultimately separated from the rest, bringing the ‘Chicago 8 trial’ down to seven, though Seale’s story is still vital to the narrative, given his contentious exchanges with Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
The ensemble cast also includes Mark Rylance as colorful defense attorney William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as junior prosecutor Richard Schultz and Michael Keaton as former Attorney General – and witness for the defense – Ramsey Clark.
To lend an air of authenticity, historic events were recreated on the actual streets and parks where they occurred in Chicago (though an empty church nave in Paterson, New Jersey was a stand-in for the inside of an Illinois federal courtroom.)
As always, Sorkin’s writing – clever, rapid-fire dialogue delivered with enough wit and gusto to obscure any gaps in drama – helps sell the story, and the film. But like his directorial debut Molly’s Game (2017), The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t quite measure up to the movies, TV shows and plays that Sorkin wrote without directing, like Moneyball, The Social Network, “The West Wing,” “Sports Night,” The American President, Malice, the classic courtroom drama A Few Good Men, and his stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Still, a Sorkin-penned anything is worth watching, especially when it involves politics, history, strong characters (real and imagined), and social justice.
Arty Chick weighs in: I liked this a lot more than Mainstream Chick. It’s such a timely reminder that police violence against peaceful protesters has gone on for way too long, and that the government often has a heavy hand in it. The whole cast is at the top of their game, though I am particularly inspired by Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s shown himself to have amazing range over the past couple of years. Is it Sorkin’s best? Maybe, maybe not. That’s like comparing diamonds and emeralds. But is it a story that needs to be seen and heard and will it keep you engaged for a couple of hours. Hell, yeah!
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in select theaters, and releases globally on Netflix October 16th.