- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
- Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance
- Classification R; 129 minutes
There are two battles being waged in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. The first is the people v. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale – the so-called Chicago 7 (yes, there are eight men; we’ll get to that) who were charged by the U.S. federal government with conspiracy to incite a riot during anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The second fight involves the case of Sorkin v. Sorkin, in which the famously verbose and quick-witted screenwriter, and now director, must battle his own worst instincts while dramatizing the Chicago 7′s legal battle.
For the defence: Across plays (A Few Good Men), television series (Sports Night, The West Wing) and film (Moneyball, The Social Network), Sorkin has mastered the art of the sizzling script. His dialogue is paced at the intensity of a jackhammer, and every other sentence uttered ends on a twist of the one that came before it. His characters are the brightest, slickest people you will ever meet, and whether you’re meant to love or loathe them, Sorkin has a genuine talent for ensuring his heroes and villains will forever stick in your head, wandering the recesses of your mind in an eternal walk-and-talk formation.
For the prosecution: Across plays (To Kill a Mockingbird), television series (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom) and film (Charlie Wilson’s War), Sorkin has mastered the art of exasperating smugness. Even if your politics align with Sorkin’s left-tilt mindset, the writer’s tendency to finger-wag can send the most self-righteous liberal running to Trump country. It is one thing to bask in the supreme confidence of someone who is convinced they are unimpeachable, another to withstand Sorkin at his most cheesily, naively idealistic, a quality that can turn his well-intentioned endeavours into unbearable and unintentional acts of self-parody.
Luckily for the republic (ie., Netflix subscribers), the Globe and Mail’s court is going to side with the first Sorkin in The Trial of The Chicago 7. While his new film does ever so closely edge toward heart-sinking and eye-rolling earnestness, it is the best kind of Sorkin-y Sorkiness. Every character crackles with a distinct energy, every line is a firebomb, and the murderer’s row of actors enlisted to twist their tongues are fantastic across the board.
Sorkin opens his drama in a straightforward manner, introducing us to the titular seven (really eight; one second) as they head to Chicago to protest the war. There are stoned counterculture leaders Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Rubin (Jeremy Strong), student activists Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Davis (Alex Sharp), noted pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), plus two low-level protesters Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Weiner (Noah Robbins), who, as Hoffman later explains, were put on trial to act as conscience-clearers for the jury. As for the eighth man? In a blatant attempt to vilify the Black Panther Party, national chairman Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was tossed into the indictment, despite being in Chicago that week for a mere four hours, missing the riot completely.
In a puzzling move that eventually proves to be canny, Sorkin skips over the actual physical conflict and subsequent arrests, moving straight from his character intros to the start of the trial. Through the men’s conversations with each other, their lawyers (including Mark Rylance as civil rights attorney William Kunstler) and their courtroom testimony, Sorkin pieces together the events of the week, leading up to a bloody confrontation that backward-echoes the police brutality conversation roiling North America today.
In the director’s chair for the second time, Sorkin has just barely improved his visual and editing sensibilities. The movie zips along with far more urgency and glee than the filmmaker’s 2017′s underground-poker drama Molly’s Game, but it still feels shot by someone tasked with making a television pilot. A very expensive and tremendously cast pilot, sure, yet a pilot all the same. There is little visual ingenuity, and so very many medium, eye-level shots. And I’m still trying to forget the clunky cuts to Hoffman’s stand-up routine.
On the subject of Hoffman, though, Baron Cohen proves here that he is just as powerful a dramatic performer as he is a comedic chameleon. The erstwhile Borat struggles with maintaining Hoffman’s American accent, but otherwise offers a fully rendered portrait of a radical facing the giant that is the U.S. government. Paired with any other supporting cast, Baron Cohen would have handily walked away with the movie in the strands of his enormous 'fro. Yet, everybody else dominates the screen, too.
Redmayne, who amusingly opts to work his way through Hayden’s American accent by seemingly pretending to chew marbles, is tremendous, especially in a late-film moment where his character’s Boy Scout sheen is tarnished. Strong, best known to fans of HBO’s Succession, plays Rubin like The Simpsons' Otto the Bus Driver – and it works! Abdul-Mateen II, who doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as his colleagues, makes the towering legend of Seale feel achingly human. And the ultra-smooth manner in which Rylance turns Kunstler into the film’s true hero deserves its own 10,000-word appreciation essay.
The cast – which even finds room for a cameoing Michael Keaton, who delivers a genuine stand-up-and-cheer moment – is the 2021 Oscar lineup in one fell swoop. And just in case you don’t think Sorkin knows how lucky he scored, one character mentions early on that the trial is “the Academy Awards of protesting.” Sorkin’s winks are so shameless that you can hear them flutter across your own living room, but that doesn’t make them unenjoyable, either.
Between the performances, the resonant subject matter, and the just-right Sorkin-esqueness of the screenplay, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the case of the year. Court adjourned.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 opens in select Canadian theatres Oct. 2; it will be available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 16
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