There's been a fair amount of buzz over Netflix's next big pandemic acquisition, Paramount's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' (yours truly is not out of that hype circle). But it almost begs the question of how I even frame this review.
Do I center it around the very real events of Chicago in 1968 where incredibly biased institutions were doing everything in their power to silence those who would dare try to incite real change? Or do I focus on the increasingly vivid modern parallels that so many commentators have pointed out over 50 years after those events?
Maybe I turn in the other direction and say "hey, it's Aaron Sorkin, we all love him, right?" But then you also have to contend with Sorkin's very clear and specialized approach to storytelling and how that approach may have contributed to the divide between liberal and leftist policies in the coming decades (again, topics that are all too relevant today and that a numbskull like me is nowhere near qualified enough to deconstruct).
But, alright, putting aside my brain fart of an opening, let's look at just the basics for now. Aaron Sorkin, coming off a pretty solid directorial debut in 2017's 'Molly's Game,' is back on the big screen with 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' (or at least he would have been any other year, thanks coronavirus). Now, we're all familiar with Sorkin's big swings, showing entire generations how to navigate socio-political spaces with 'The West Wing' and 'The Newsroom,' as well as his biopic work with 'Steve Jobs' and 'The Social Network' (the latter I'd still hold up as one of the best films of the 2010s).
However, 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is a much more special project for Sorkin, dating back over a decade to producer meetings with Steven Spielberg before a series of shakeups resulting from the 2007 Writers Strike. Eventually, the project was revived with Sorkin at the director's chair at Paramount, only for current circumstances to land the film at Netflix, and what a find it was. A superstar writer/director like Sorkin with a story tailor-made for his sensibilities and a cast stacked to the brim with talent; this had to be an instant awards frontrunner, right?
Well if there is some form of awards season this year, you're going to hear A LOT about 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' and a lot of that is for good reason. It's Sorkin in his most familiar territory (flaws and all), but it's also incredibly engaging, it flies by its runtime and actually does have a bit of poignancy in regards to those aforementioned historical parallels.
As the Vietnam War results in more and more young Americans being drafted, police and protestors clashed in demonstrations all over the country. One of the most pivotal took place in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where eight defendants were charged with conspiracy by the federal government to incite a riot. The protestors are defended by ACLU lawyer William Kunstler (played by Mark Rylance), while the government assigns Richard Schultz (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in an attempt to convict them.
Those defendants were Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (played by John Carrol Lynch), Rennie Davis (played by Alex Sharp), John Froines (played by Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (played by Noah Robbins) and Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
The trial escalates over several months due to, among other things, Seale being severed from the case because of a lack of evidence and the constant quarrels between the defendants and Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella). As the seven remaining defendants work with Kunstler to prove their innocence in the chaos, the whole world watches as the future of first amendment rights in the U.S are put to the test.
One of Sorkin's biggest strengths is the kind of ping-pong style dialogue structure that he can build between actors and almost everyone walks out of here delivering stellar work. Frank Langella plays Julius Hoffman with this cold kind of distance that just makes you hate him, Eddie Redmayne is the most compelling he's been in a while as Tom Hayden, and Mark Rylance continues to solidify my theory that he is just THAT good of an actor (he's almost framed as a lead character in a sense).
There's also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who might have the most difficult task of embodying Bobby Seale's anger and turmoil for a trial he has little say in, and of course, Sacha Baron Cohen who is just chewing up the scenery as the chaotic Abbie Hoffman. They all get Sorkin's dialogue to play off of and they all have such a clear grasp on their characters that you just have to keep the focus on every aspect of the trial.
But, again, performances can only go so far and Sorkin has made a story that constantly builds both its trial elements and historical elements like a boiling kettle. That much frustration only flames more revelations on both sides that the film is more than capable of structuring its story, and we do get to see everything.
We get to see the constant conflicts between the seven (particularly between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden), the espionage-laden hand of the federal government behind every new day of the proceedings, and the rising sense of righteousness that the protestors continuously have for said defendants. In other words, it's a courtroom drama that knows how to play to its audience's sense of optimism while also being a reflection of the very real shockwaves that are still being felt today.
The discussions that Sorkin does try to sprinkle in throughout the story are handled very well for the most part. Again, I have to talk about the moments between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, the former pushing for more radical reform for systems that he believes will never be on the correct side of history and the latter believing that those systems are better than people who choose to abuse them. In the middle of it all are the aforementioned Kunstler, who believes justice is bigger than anyone approach, and Seale, who has none of the privilege to argue for one or the other and is looking out for people who have been hurt all the same.
On the other hand, this is an Aaron Sorkin film and he's not going to shy away from what he knows: big shots of optimistic moments with pitch-perfect comebacks, all set to a swelling (albeit still very good) musical score and nostalgia for a revolutionary time in history. That last bit kind of drags the film down in some regards; it certainly has enough self-awareness to see those modern parallels, but it also can't help to temper down some of the criticisms it's trying to reflect (that I won't spoil in case you're not familiar with the story) that should really work.
It also doesn't help that, even with some breathtaking performances, some of the characters feel weirdly out of focus, including members of the Chicago 7 themselves (granted, the film goes out of their way to explain why those characters aren't prevalent, I understand why). Plus, even taking away from that framing, Sorkin decided to make a movie where the massive social changes are framed 90% around white men, the women are nearly nonexistent, and the black characters are rarely given their own voices for change.
*(I'm aware of "being accuracy to history," I'm just saying it's not a great look if you're going for something broader)
'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is not Aaron Sorkin's best work and certainly doesn't deliver on all of its potentials. But what it does deliver on is a dual sense of urgency, both for the portrait of recent history it's trying to tell and for audiences now trying to reconcile with the recreation of that portrait. I can already tell that this movie isn't going to be everyone's thing, between its reasoning to go more "glamourous" and the sense of optimism its creatives try to put across. For me, I'm fine with it, especially when the story itself is so willing to bring us into that space and I can at least hope it's interesting enough to get across some of those conversations.
Overall, I give 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' 8.5/10.
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