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Review: Aaron Sorkin's stirring 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' a masterful courtroom drama

Courtesy is Netflix


Aaron Sorkin is returning to the directing chair and the courtroom with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Though “Molly’s Game” – Sorkin’s first directorial effort – wasn’t a bust, you can tell the seasoned writer behind “A Few Good Men,” and “The Newsroom” has evolved, showcasing a surprising restraint from what his audience expects. Yes, “Chicago 7” has a major, major, ensemble that will, no doubt, find themselves in the awards race during this crazy release cycle, but Sorkin’s usually well versed script doesn’t hit you like “The Social Network” or “Steve Jobs,” instead allowing somber, rousing moments to manifest on their own accord. 

It’s also, not ironically, the filmmakers most timely. In fact, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – depending on how the impending Supreme Court justice nomination process and election goes – could be the rare flick that represents the mood of the country. Featuring one of the finest ensembles in recent memory: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yaya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Michael Keaton, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr – the historical drama isn’t short on star power, and each actor – in true Sorkin fashion – get their moment to shine, but Cohen, Rylance and Redmayne steal the show.

Stuck in development hell for the better half of a decade, with many different filmmakers throwing their names in the ring – notably Steven Spielberg – Sorkin brings an amateurish pedigree to the proceedings. Sprinkling in nods to “12 Angry Men,” “The Verdict,” and “A Few Good Men” though also structured in the vein of “The Rainmaker” and “The Firm” to help elevate the picture to mainstream status. But considering the social and political unrest taking shape in our country, it’s hard not to view “The Trial of the Chicago 7” for what it is: a call to action.

Set during the aftermath of 1968 Democratic National Convention, the film tells the true story surrounding a group of seven individuals who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite riots in relation to their protest of the Vietnam war. Seen as the trial of a generation, it faced heavy scrutiny due to the election of Richard Nixon whose attorney general recommended charges when the previous administration did not. 

The defendants themselves were a rascally squad, brought together from all backgrounds. You had jokester Abbie Hoffman (Cohen – sporting a thick mane of hair) who spent his weekends performing stand-up for college students; Jerry Rubin (Strong channeling his inner Cheech Martin) the formidable Abbot to Hoffman’s Costello; political activist Thomas Hayden (Redmayne) who along with Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) ran the Students for a Democratic Society and were instrumental in the anti-war movement; American radical pacifist David Dellinger (Lynch) and finally chemist John R. Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and student Lee Weiner (Robbins); the latter two thrown in for good measure despite not actually taking place in the events: “You’re the guys who get acquitted, so it makes the jury feel better about convicting the others” they’re told.

Another outlier in the pack was Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther party, who had only been in town briefly for a speech but was picked up on a flagrant murder charge in Connecticut and prosecuted, unconstitutionally, in conjunction with the other seven defendants. Nevermind the fact his preferred lawyer was undergoing surgery, or that he had no direct involvement with the riots in question, and the harsh Judge Julius Hoffman (Langella) refused to let him speak on his behalf, and was bound and gagged, an image that tragically feels all too familiar in today’s landscape. Major kudos to Abdul-Mateen II, fresh off his Emmy win for “Watchman,” in bringing an impassioned supporting turn to the screen, finding the balance between a man whose justice system is stacked against him and contending with the racial discrimination so prevalent in the late 1960’s.

Oscar winner Mark Rylance shows incredible endurance playing famed attorney William Kunstler, chewing up Sorkin dialogue like yesterday’s breakfast, who oversaw the litigation for the Chicago 7, likewise for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz who – at age 36 – was tasked with making the United States Government look firm and concise in their prosecution despite the whole word watching. Is there anything more exciting than watching two pros argue cases and scream “I OBJECT!” at each other?

And for giggles, Sorkin tosses Michael Keaton into the mix as former AG Ramsey Clark for what’s essentially an extended cameo.

You can be sure there’s the usual courtroom drama cliché’s, ranging from the “AHA! break-in-the-case!” to the eventual jury tampering, but Sorkin – working closely with editor Alan Baumgarten – keep the events tight and unfurling in rapid succession. They don’t waste time explaining things in the timeline we already know as the pre title card sequence sets up the film quite nicely. And you’d think with an ensemble as large as this one, that an actor would be forgotten, except you’d be impressed at how each performer is given their BIG moment to shine. Specifically Cohen, who is generally known for his wild, improvisational antics, gives one of the best performances of his career. A surprise considering the controversial actor works at his own speed, but his take on the freewheeling Abbie Hoffman proves a terrific showcase for the “Borat” star.

As someone who misses the heyday of 90s’ courtroom dramas and devours John Grisham adaptations whether good or bad (“A Time To Kill” remains an all time favorite) watching “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was therapeutic. In a year plagued with such tragedy and torment, here comes a rousing film about the power of protest to remind audiences (and myself) why we love movies. This is a masterful drama, brilliantly executed for maximum efficiency and crowd-pleasing thrills. Even if we look around and hate the political/social infrastructure that exists today, Sorkin admirably tries to sow division through the lens of a country that still hasn’t learned from its mistakes.

Grade: A-

The Trial of the Chicago 7 premiers globally on Netflix October 16th


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