Synopsis – The story of 7 people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
My Take – I think we can all agree that A Few Good Men, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Steve Jobs are arguably some of the stand out films of the last three decades. And the common factor among them all? Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
While his directorial debut, Molly’s Game (2017), got pounded by releasing during a crowded award season, and ended up receiving only attention for Jessica Chastain‘s superb performance, it nevertheless proved Sorkin‘s skill behind the camera as well. A skill which insured that his sophomore effort got itself a stellar cast onboard, despite its controversial subject.
And with Sorkin’s considerable gifts for showmanship, snappy dialogue and heart-tugging liberal fervor in tow, his recounting of the 1969 trial of the men accused of orchestrating the riots that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, is without a shadow of doubt, the best film of the year!
Here, Aaron Sorkin‘s narrative screenplay is organized in a way that keeps the viewer astonishingly captivated throughout the entire runtime by following a nonlinear structure. Along with a constant reminder just how little has changed in 50 years, and how free speech and democratic ideals continue to be threatened by a tyrannical American government.
Full of weight, resonance and potency, this is an excellent filmmaker’s cry for justice and change in America, and an uplifting and moving story about civil rights, freedom of thought and the importance of doing the right thing, making this a leading candidate for the coming awards season.
Set in 1968, the story follows seven student leaders who found themselves charged with conspiracy to incite a riot, while in truth the 10,000 students with whom they had arrived at Chicago’s Democratic Party convention was always intended to be a peaceful protest against the ongoing the Vietnam War, until the city’s police force met them with wooden clubs, tear gas and rifles. And as the trial begins it becomes apparent how disparate these men were.
Everyone from hippie radicals such as Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), to more pragmatic individuals, such as future politician Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), fellow anti-war activists Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and an outraged Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the founder of the Black Panther party, all stood together in court, passionately defended by renowned Civil rights activists and lawyers William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).
Making matters worse for them, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the lead prosecutor has been asked expressly to go for the maximum sentence by the then Attorney General John H. Mitchell (John Damon). And even the presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) seems to have some pre-existing bias against the defendants and is often combative and unsympathetic. But all seven know they’re not there for justice, but to become politically motivated examples of the new government.
The film is a mixture of patriotic speechifying and flashy set pieces in which the acclaimed actors dig into director Sorkin’s self-consciously clever dialogue. Sorkin, who won a screenplay Oscar for The Social Network, has familiarity with both courtroom dramas and liberal politics. So it’s no surprise that the film allows him to flex potent dramatic muscles, engaging the audience with the trial’s legal processes while simultaneously championing the right to speak out in opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Unfolding at a surprisingly breakneck pace for a film seated almost entirely in a courtroom, the film is all of Sorkin’s strengths and weaknesses in one well-polished punch. Full of grown-up grandstanding and exhilarating back-and-forth dialogue, no one is better at un-muddying the swamp of American politics or at making densely packed drama sound quite as effortless and exciting.
But by his standards, the film is, for the most part, commendably restrained, allowing the trials remarkable twists and turns to speak for themselves. Maintaining the focus on a single location is an exceptional decision for a film where words are the action of the story. Inside the courtroom is where every fascinating argument ensues, never losing steam until the very end. Plus it’s also a lot funnier than I expected.
While the film makes obvious parallels between the 1960s counterculture and the modern-day resistance to Donald Trump, the film is stronger when it’s more self-critical, observing as Abbie Hoffman and Hayden bicker over the best way to bring about revolution. The film feels like compulsory viewing, having arrived in a year of renewed Black Lives Matter protests and with democracy on a knife-edge in the United States ahead of the presidential election. This is a powerful broadside from one of Hollywood’s most talented writer that you won’t want to miss.
The only issue I had with the film was regarding the introduction of the characters. In order to maintain its urgency and speed, the story itself goes by so fast that I could only understand who’s who and their purpose during the trial.
It seemed like Sorkin assumed people know everything about who these characters are, what they did, and where the narrative is driving towards, skipping through dozens of details that non-American audiences will struggle to understand in time. The film could have given these characters more depth initially, offering the viewer time to get familiar with their names and organizations.
Still, with a cast this strong, it’s hard to bicker over that. With Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong and Frank Langella being my choice of standouts, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, Daniel Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin FitzGerald, and Max Adler too deserving applause for being quite good. On the whole, ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a timely and important drama uplifted by its brilliant writing and awesome cast.
Directed – Aaron Sorkin
Rated – R
Run Time – 129 minutes