It is almost a cliché to use the phrase ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ when reviewing an adult drama with movie stars. After all, Hollywood still churns out films of this ilk. It just only happens in the run-up to awards season. In recent years there’s been Spotlight, The Post and Dark Waters. While acclaimed screenwriter turned director Aaron Sorkin’s latest The Trial of the Chicago 7 does not quite reach the highs of the aforementioned pictures, it feels similarly solid and sturdy.
The year is 1968 at the time of the US-Vietnam war. Firmly against the war are different groups. On the more moderate side, there is the Students for a Democratic Society led by the ambitious Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), as well as pacifist family man David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). On the other are the militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong).
After descending on Chicago for a mass protest, the various groups clash with local authorities. As a result, seven of the demonstration’s organisers – along with Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the Black Panthers who was not involved – are arraigned on charges including Conspiracy by the hostile Nixon administration and face long prison sentences. Already dealing with an unfair trial, presided over by the ignorant antagonistic Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella), the protestors, their pro bono lawyer (played by Mark Rylance), and Seale try to find a way to beat the odds while clashing over their different political philosophies.
If Sorkin’s directorial debut – the biographical crime drama Molly’s Game – saw the screenwriter aping the fast paced frenetic style of Martin Scorsese, David O Russell or even his one-time collaborator Danny Boyle, his latest recalls later period Bridge of Spies / The Post-era Steven Spielberg in its attempts to give his wordy screenplay a dynamic edge (Spielberg originally intended to direct Sorkin’s script). The result from a filmmaking standpoint is a mixed bag. While the costumes and sets all look pristine, they feel perfect to an artificial degree. The grandiose score comes across as bland and fails to leave an impression. There is not a lot of cinematic atmosphere, with Sorkin mostly relying on cutting rather than camerawork to jazz up this tale.
Sometimes the latter works in the movie’s favour. The build up to the protestors’ first clash with police is genuinely exciting. Sorkin rapidly cuts between witnesses’ testimonies in court, Abbie Hoffman recounting the story as part of his quasi lectures/comedy nights for college students and different perspectives on the ground at the demonstration itself – adding to the confusion and escalating tension. However, in lighter moments – such as the film’s lengthy intro establishing the context for the movie to follow by switching between various characters for comedic effect as they describe their different perspectives on the central protest – it feels a tad twee and too broad and not unlike this sequence from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
However, Chicago 7 is a movie where the pleasures are less in the filmmaking and more in its screenplay and the cast assembled to deliver it. Sorkin’s sophomore effort is at its most electric whenever it puts actors of Cohen, Rylance, Strong and Redmayne’s calibre in a confined space together to practice their defence. Or when it places them in a courtroom alongside or against Abdul-Mateen and Langella, as well as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s conflicted prosecutor or Michael Keaton as former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the defence’s unexpected star witness. Thankfully, scenes such as this make up the bulk of the drama, and the thrill of watching them is almost akin to live theatre.
Sorkin’s screenplay won’t win him any converts. At times, like the look of the film itself, it is maybe too mannered and polished to capture the righteous anger the story truly deserves. I can imagine critics of The West Wing creator rolling their eyes during the moment when the polar opposite figures of Redmayne’s and Cohen’s bond over grammar. That said, each of the movie’s major characters feel well-rounded. Sorkin manages to build these great arcs for each person out of seemingly minor details. The script is funnier than you would expect too, with Cohen and Strong racking up tons of laughs as their characters somehow manage to turn the courtroom into the setting for their weed fuelled double act comedy show.
Sorkin also does a terrific job at dramatizing a complex tale. He manages to convey both the unfair persecution that the Chicago 7 and Seale faced, their infighting, the importance of the trial in the context of the era in which it took place, and – perhaps most importantly – the lessons viewers today can take away from the true events. In regards the latter, Langella’s judge is another reminder of just how destructive biased and unprofessional people in positions of power can be, while the moment where Seale is physically gagged and restrained in court also feels all too timely.
For all its flaws, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the type of movie – one destined for Oscar nominations – that I am glad is still being made in Hollywood. In fact, its conventionally told story depicting a real-life fight for justice is a breath of fresh air arriving in a time of such uncertainty.