In one way Aaron Sorkin is the perfect person to make a meaty courtroom drama about the notorious Chicago Seven. The accomplished wordsmith is more than capable of covering such a dense story and its numerous players. On the other hand Sorkin has never been shy about his firm political leanings, and this particular subject (especially in our current hyper-partisan climate) could offer temptations too tempting for him to pass up.
Sorkin’s new film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” proves to be a bit of both. It’s an enthralling, fast-moving and at times unexpectedly funny courtroom drama. At the same time you never doubt where Sorkin’s sympathies lie and history occasionally takes a backseat to the film’s obvious relevance-seeking predilections.
First slated as a Paramount Pictures big screen release before being sold to Netflix, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows a group (originally made up of eight and then eventually seven) of anti-Vietnam War and counterculture protesters who were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting riots (among other things) at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They were considered leaders of various anti-establishment groups with diverse backgrounds and motivations – political activists, flower children, anarchists, and revolutionary socialists. Their reputations put them in the sites of the authorities and made them quick targets for the already defensive state and local governments.
Sorkin tells the story completely from the points-of-view of the eight men charged and their supporters. Outside of a brief table-setting opening montage and a handful of flashbacks, the entire film is set in and around the courtroom. Sorkin puts a strong spotlight on the gross mishandling of the proceedings by a biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) even throwing in some fictional demonizing as if history needed it. He also shows the sheer circus the trial became in large part due to Judge Hoffman’s unconstitutional antics, but equally due to the showmanship of the defendants, specifically from yippie leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen).
The story proper begins with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz, a young, idealistic federal prosecutor handpicked by the Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to get a conviction in the trial against the activists. Schultz is one of the only people outside the protesters circle with the slightest bit of nuance. He’s essentially a government ￼pawn but he’s also the only one who sees the potential risks of prosecuting this particular case. “We are giving them exactly what they want” he warns his boss, “a stage and an audience.”
Across from him is defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a radical lawyer and activist who knows the law and quickly begins to realize the deck is stacked against him. He has the toughest job of any – defending in a trial ripe with corruption while trying to keep his motley band of clients on the same page. The wild card is Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He’s the eighth man with no real attachment to the other seven but connected by the government solely so the feds can target the Panthers. Stripped of his constitutional rights and dehumanized in the very courtroom that should stand for justice, Seale’s plight is the most tragic.
Rounding out the film’s plump star-studded cast: Eddie Redmayne is shaky in places but mostly solid playing disaffected leftist cage-rattler Tom Hayden. John Carroll Lynch is a nice fit playing non-violent socialist activist and family guy David Dellinger. Michael Keaton gets a small but welcomed role playing former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The one flatline performance comes from the usually solid Jeremy Strong. He seems out of sync playing hippie counterculture radical Jerry Rubin. He both underplays and overplays several scenes and never quite feels comfortable with his approach to his character. Still, the biggest head-turners are Cohen and Langella. Oscar nominations wouldn’t be undeserved.
Sorkin’s snappy pacing and signature rapid-fire dialogue zips us through the story, giving us a good sense of the legal turmoil while providing plenty of memorable character moments. As you would expect from a Sorkin film, most of the dialogue is whip-smart and flows with an energetic rhythm that keeps you honed in on every exchange. But surprisingly there are instances where it can come across as stilted and self-conscious. Characters will drop lines that feel custom written for a movie scene rather than natural to the story. And then there’s the ending, a rushed “notice me Oscar” finish that lays on the melodrama complete with swelling orchestration. Considering everything the film does well, the ending resembles something packaged from an awards-conscious studio.
Unfortunately in an effort to venerate his protagonists Sorkin ends up robbing his film of its true-story complexities. The Chicago Seven weren’t without blemishes – Rubin’s affection for Charles Manson, Hoffman’s cocaine dealing, Kunstler’s rogues gallery of clients. And while Sorkin tosses in a ten-second clip of Rubin and Hoffman teaching followers how to make Molotov cocktails, there’s really nothing morally complex about them. Sorkin writes a very white hat/black hat tale that leaves practically nothing for us to wrestle with. Still, he’s a good enough writer to energize the many characters and tell a mesmerizing story even if it’s only a subjective CliffsNotes version.
VERDICT – 3 STARS