Playing in cinemas around the UK and now on Netflix is The Trial Of The Chicago 7, from Aaron Sorkin – and here’s our review of the movie.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 dramatises the farcical case of a group of protesters who were charged with conspiracy to incite riots for their part in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the months after Richard Nixon became the US President, a disgruntled new Attorney General has decided to pursue the maximum allowed sentencing for the loosely-connected defendants, with a belligerent conservative judge (Frank Langella) presiding over the case.
The motley group includes counter-culture leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin, (Jeremy Strong) anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis, (Alex Sharp) avowed pacifist David Dellinger, (John Carroll Lynch) and pardonable seat-fillers Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines, (Daniel Flaherty). And then there’s Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who has never even met the so-called ‘Chicago 7’.
Stalwart lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) stands for the defence, while junior prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) represents his government bosses in a trial that runs for a whopping 153 days.
Resulting in numerous contempt-of-court charges and various other hilarious disruptions, the trial has seemed ripe for a cinematic treatment for some time now. Indeed, when Sorkin originally wrote this script towards the end of George W Bush’s Republican administration, Steven Spielberg was attached to direct. Almost every review has mentioned this aspect of the film’s production, most often in relation to the perceived lack of deftness about it in comparison to something like The Post, Spielberg’s 2018 ode to the freedom of the press.
For fans of Sorkin, his more heavy-handed approach is part of the appeal. His characters are ever-prescient of that feeling we’ve all had, hours after an argument has ended, when we think of exactly what we should have said. That’s what makes him great at codifying recent history into the American cinema, as with his script for The Social Network and his directorial debut Molly’s Game.
Perhaps it’s greater hindsight that leaves The Trial Of The Chicago 7 feeling a little more scattergun in its approach. Where Molly’s Game takes a story best known from sensationalised tabloid coverage and makes it feel pressing and urgent, this one takes big swings, but rarely connects as it should. Despite its worthier subject matter and larger, ensemble-driven scale, this feels like a less substantial work overall.
Where this does work is in portraying a large range of distinctive characters and viewpoints. The cause is ending the war in Vietnam, but because liberalism is a broader church than conservatism, there’s lots of in-fighting over how to meaningfully campaign for and achieve peace. These mostly flare up between Baron Cohen’s anarchic thinker and Redmayne’s harried, rational activist – when the former states there are more important things than winning elections, the latter snaps that “if you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second”, and the depiction of liberal divisions is the most recognisably contemporary aspect of the film.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Mateen is on a whole different level as the unsung eighth defendant. As Seale, he points out that the stakes of protest are very different for him as an African-American than they are for the white liberal contingent, who jockey for the platform provided by the trial as an opportunity to either clown or philosophise. Those stakes peak around the mid-point of the film with a galling sequence involving a violation of Seale’s human rights, but the film still has another hour or so to go.
As a result, Seale is just one part of a film that revels in showing off its entertaining character work, even if it makes the story baggier in the process. It’s the sort of film that wants to cover all bases and doesn’t leave any character especially underserved. There’s even room for a show-stopping special guest appearance from someone who clearly relishes his turn in the witness stand as much as a one-time co-star of his did in another Sorkin-penned movie. We should also mention the very funny turn by Succession’s Jeremy Strong, who brilliantly plays against type as an indignant hippy with hidden depths and talents.
But for all of the ways in which this story could resonate today, there’s not much time left over for anything other than connecting dots from the past to the present. The film has notions about Republican administrations over time (and chiefly about Gordon-Levitt’s imaginary nice-guy version of a career-driven government stooge) that would have felt a bit quaint in 2008, never mind in 2020. A couple of the topical additions feel very bolted on, and most of all, the final scene feels like a falsely triumphal note, quickly papered over by the customary closing text dump about the aftermath.
All objections aside, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is more successful as a throwback to the star-studded courtroom dramas of the 1990s than anything else, and for pure grown-up entertainment value, it comfortably surpasses that bar. With its dazzling ensemble cast and irreconcilable tensions, the overall effect is often like watching different pieces of a good, binge-able limited series, rather than a wholly satisfying movie, but there’s a lot to like about those pieces all the same.
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