REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Trial of the Chicago 7 Film Poster
Release Poster – Netflix

Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) — Distributed by Netflix.

Back in July 2020, news broke that Netflix had acquired the distribution rights to this Aaron Sorkin legal drama following negotiations with Paramount Pictures. The global COVID-19 pandemic had made it difficult for Paramount to live up to the promise of a wide theatrical release this year especially since it was, reportedly, important for the filmmakers to have their film released to the public prior to the 2020 United States Presidential Election in November. Netflix provided them with a feasible and acceptable way out. The Trial of the Chicago 7 has now been released globally on the popular streaming service, thus giving Americans a chance to watch this drama before casting their vote.

It’s also very easy to see why Sorkin and the producers felt it was so important for their film to be seen as soon as possible and by as sizable an audience as possible. The true story of the Chicago Seven, or Eight if you count Bobby Seale, feels incredibly timely this year, which, other than by a pandemic, has also been tarnished by the police brutality that has led to protests not just in America but all over the world. Sorkin and the producers must hope that, like the anti-Vietnam War phrase went (which is featured prominently in the film), the whole world will be watching. If they do, viewers will be met by a timely and fairly infuriating film about fighting for what’s right even when the system, best personified by Frank Langella’s character, deliberately works against you. Sorkin’s film, though certainly not his finest work, will resonate with many and likely be very moving to general audiences.

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is his second film as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, tells the true story of the leading protesters who were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Over the course of the film, which is mostly set inside of a courtroom, we follow the defendants, the lead prosecutor (Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), and defense attorney William Kunstler (played by Mark Rylance) as the stage is set for a political trial wherein an incompetent and bigoted judge (Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella) could scold and punish leaders of notable American leftist movements. These leaders include the ambitious Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne) of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the non-violent David Dellinger (played by John Carroll Lynch), and the lively and challenging Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party (Yippies). These leftist leaders and protesters were grouped together with Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, who insisted on not being represented by their attorney, which would lead to severe problems for Seale.

Both writer-director Aaron Sorkin and film editor Alan Baumgarten do a good job of establishing all of these details in the film’s opening sequence, which includes both archival footage and a montage of the various leaders getting ready for the protest in their own distinct ways. We spend most of the film inside the courtroom. In fact, after the opening sequence which, again, showed the leaders prepare for the protest, the film flashforwards several months. This does not, however, mean that we do not get to see the protest and ‘riot’ take place. When certain individuals take the stand, we flashback to various elaborate scenes, including scenes depicting police brutality. One of Richard Schultz’s first attempts in court is to establish that the defendants can be grouped together, but the film’s opening montage sequence emphasizes that their individual background, their motives, and their personalities differ greatly. Of course, they were united by a common goal. The film’s greatest strength may actually, in spite of this being a courtroom drama, be the scenes in which Hoffman and Hayden debate their individual roles in the movement and the trial.

This is a great ensemble drama that includes some pivotal standout performances. Frank Langella is note-perfect as the intolerant and incompetent judge. Mark Rylance is a highlight as the passionate and big-hearted attorney, and Jeremy Strong, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Keaton, who makes a brief appearance, are solid here as well. I have mixed feelings about Eddie Redmayne, though. Redmayne and Rylance have a scene together that is not unlike the A Few Good Men Code Red-scene. Here Rylance’s character subjects Tom Hayden to intense questioning about his involvement in the riot. The scene is gripping and exciting, but Redmayne’s breakdown wasn’t entirely convincing to me. His reaction, not unlike his questionable accent, felt slightly exaggerated. To be clear, even though his accent isn’t completely distracting, it does sound put-on. Although Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely perfectly cast, and even though he, on the whole, gives a very strong dramatic performance, he, too, put on an iffy accent. Finally, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is great but underutilized in the role of Bobby Seale. Abdul-Mateen II has several strong scenes in which Seale’s righteous indignation resonates with you as a viewer. But, in my mind, he is at his best in a short but powerful scene between Seale, Kunstler, and Hayden, in which Kunstler gives Seale bad news. Seale gives a speech that actually really emphasizes how different his indignation is to the frustration of the rest of the defendants.

If you know the story of Bobby Seale, then you also know that Abdul-Mateen II has to go through a terrifying and upsetting scene around the halfway point in the film. Without revealing too much, I will say that this scene is powerful and that it has an impact on the rest of the film. However, I was disappointed by the fact that Abdul-Mateen II basically vanishes from the movie after this scene. I don’t appreciate the fact that instead of giving Abdul-Mateen II another scene to react to what transpires here, Sorkin opted to focus on how the Chicago Seven felt about what had happened. To me, that felt like a big mistake. This isn’t Sorkin’s only mistake, in my mind, though. I think that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is overlong, in part due to the fact that he spends too much time on Richard Schultz’s perspective, even though his character is thinly sketched. Also, the film’s ending will be up for debate. The scene appears to be a Sorkin invention, and it feels very corny. But I have to say that I, personally, was moved by it.

Courtroom dramas used to be all the rage, but it’s been a while since we had the last great one. I’m glad Sorkin has returned to a genre he once mastered. Although it is his best film as a director, this is not Sorkin at his best, for the simple reason that Sorkin is better when his writing is interpreted by seasoned directors. Nevertheless, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a stirring courtroom drama that is both moving and gripping, warts and all.

8 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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