Since arriving on the scene as the writer of A Few Good Men in 1992, Aaron Sorkin has solidified his place as one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters. Working predominantly within the parameters of drama, his work has also included The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing and Steve Jobs (amongst others). His directorial debut, Molly’s Game (2017), also confirmed him to be a competent filmmaker in his own right, which led to much anticipation for his sophomore outing, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The script for Chicago 7 has languished in Hollywood for decades, having passed through the hands of Steven Spielberg and Paul Greengrass, before landing in Sorkin’s mitts. As the title asserts, the film chronicles the historical trial of seven political activists whose demonstration against the Vietnam War led to riots. The trial itself was of great national interest and its polarising media coverage divided opinion.
The peace movement during the 1960s defined the era and held the government to account, and the story of the Chicago 7 is the stuff of legal legend. In fact, stories like theirs are ripe for Hollywood picking and ought to make for an engrossing and utterly compelling viewing. And yet, Sorkin’s film arrives with lacklustre impact.
The film’s ensemble doesn’t boast any particular headline player, although it could be argued that Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is the story’s pivotal character, which is where much of my criticism lies. He portrays Abbie Hoffman, an icon of the anti-war movement and the co-founder of the Youth International Party. Hoffman was a buffoonish intellectual, whose smarts were cloaked behind a nonsensical demeanour. Part of his method of activism was to undermine the establishment with satire, which – clearly – makes Cohen an obvious choice of casting. Perhaps, too obvious.
Cohen’s own career has been defined much like Hoffmans’. He attacks (and often outsmarts) his ideological opponents with deception and humour, and while Cohen has previously proven himself to be a reliable dramatic actor, his performance here errs too closely to his own brand of satire. This, when factored with an unconvincing American accent, results in his part in The Trial of the Chicago 7 being the weakest link.
Thankfully, the stable of talent alongside him offer sturdy performances. Eddie Redmayne turns over the strongest of the bunch as Tom Hayden, whose style of activism is pacifistic, and who strikes a lot more chords and realigns the story with its drama. Frank Langella is excellent as the presiding judge whose prejudice is transparent, while Mark Rylance delivers an expectedly reliable performance as the increasingly frustrated defence lawyer. Other notable performances come from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Michael Keaton also has a brief appearance whereby he practically plays himself and might as well have mailed his performance from home (it feels like another lazy headline-grabbing choice of casting).
I might suggest that another point of contention lies with the film’s awareness of its own contemporary parallels. With America currently in a state of unrest and political division, the story of the Chicago 7 mirrors much of what is unfolding ahead of the US election. The film may have served up a powerful argument had Sorkin simply let his story reflect modern issues, without so deliberately drawing those conclusions for his viewers.
Where the film does work is in Sorkin’s structure, which has the story pinballing between the trial and the alleged crimes, thus providing context and accuracy to the defensive argument. This method works well and were it not for Cohen’s dominance throughout the story, it might have been exceptional. The historical recreations of various moments are well handled and the production design feels authentic. The same cannot be said for the hair and wardrobe, which nudge towards parody at times.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a good film that might have been a great film. Its near-miss qualifies its place on Netflix, where there is no cost of admission for those already subscribed, and will satisfy the casual observer. Those looking for an in-depth exploration of an important historical milestone, on the other hand, might walk away unsatisfied.
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is currently streaming on Netflix and can be seen right HERE.