'The Trial of the Chicago 7' Review
October 26, 2020
“The whole world is watching!”
Those words have just as much relevance today as they did back in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention. It isn’t a coincidence that the problems we dealt with more than sixty years ago are still the same problems that we wrestle with today. It’s also not a coincidence that Aaron Sorkin and Netflix have released their new politically charged film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, just weeks before one of the most important elections in our nation’s history.
Based on a true story, The Trial of the Chicago 7 opens like a rocket with a rapid pace intercutting between all the major parties involved at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The first of these parties is Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis as part of the Students for a Democratic Society. Next is the hippies of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who lead the Youth International Party. There’s also David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, and John Froines. These seven make up the ragtag group of the Chicago 7. Also (unfairly) part of their trial is Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
These eight activists are on trial for their roles in the anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968 Chicago that led to a series of brawls between protestors and police. The bigwigs in the White House believe that the protestors were the ones that started the riots and want to make an example of the seven. The demonstrators (correctly) claim that it was the people dressed in blue that instigated the violence. From here the battle begins between two opposing sides with the potential nation-defining verdict hanging in the balance.
Director Aaron Sorkin follows up his 2017 debut feature Molly’s Game with another director’s showcase. Mainly set within a single courtroom, the film is ripe with technical wizardry from all facets of the production. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael incorporates a wide array of long takes and many angled shots that tell just as much of the story as the script does. Editor Alan Baumgarten doesn’t allow for a single dull moment as he keeps this train moving at full speed from beginning to end.
This isn’t to say Sorkin is a perfect director, far from that actually. Sorkin still misses his mark in a few key areas, most notably in the final moments of the film where the attempt at a stirring finale comes off as cheesy and dated. A writer before taking over the director’s chair, Sorkin has delivered some of the greatest scripts of this millennium with his work on The Social Network (which won him an Oscar), Steve Jobs, and Moneyball.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers yet another Oscar-worthy script from Sorkin and the exact one you would want for a courtroom drama. Sorkin instills his trademarked rapid back-and-forth dialogue during the trial proceedings as witnesses testify and lawyers verbally spar. Several lines throughout elicit a strong provocative reaction that connects the film to today's cultural climate.
Like all Sorkin scripts, everything does feel a bit too clean and artificial. Every character speaks on a near-genius level as they always say the exact right thing at the exact right moments. This style of perfect dialogue is more in line with characters such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs instead of the ones found within this film. But, when the dialogue is this good all the time, that problem doesn’t matter all that much.
Sorkin has also assembled an all-star cast to relish in his whip-smart script. There isn’t a single weak link among them as they will crowd Oscar ballots with their powerhouse performances.
Veteran stage and screen actor Mark Rylance, here on the opposite side of the law than his performance in Bridge of Spies, leads the pack with his spectacular turn as the defense lawyer for the Chicago 7. Also a stage and screen veteran is the great Frank Langella who plays the dangerously maniacal judge who oversees the case. Langella’s grumpy performance parallels closely to a certain political figure who currently occupies the Oval Office.
Jeremy Strong is almost unrecognizable from his uptight role in Succession as he expertly plays the relaxed Jerry Rubin. Sacha Baron Cohen is more in line with his previous roles as the clownish Abbie Hoffman. Yahya Abdul Mateen II is great in his both intentional and unintentional small role as George Seale. His role incites the most sympathy and relates to our current situation of race and policing.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a nostalgic old-school courtroom drama bolstered by strong modern filmmaking and terrific performances from its cast. The timeliness and importance of its message make it a must-see as the whole world will be watching during this tumultuous election season.