Oscars 2021: The Trial of the Chicago 7 review


Oscar-nominated film The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, was released on Netflix on 16 October 2020. While initially intended for a theatrical release, the decision to sell the distribution rights to Netflix as a result of COVID-19 was a logical one by Sorkin, as Chicago 7 is now one of the streamer’s most-watched movies.

The subject of the film is a federal trial, beginning in September 1969, of a group of prominent political radicals charged with orchestrating a violent anti-Vietnam War protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. There were initially 8 defendants before charges were dismissed against Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leaving the remaining ‘Chicago 7’. In the group are civil rights activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Yippie ringleader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his right-hand man Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, who seems to be doing a Derek Zoolander impression), uncompromising pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and activists John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins).

The defendants, while united in their opposition to the war, disagree on style and strategy. Hoffman (whose dialogue more or less reads as a stand-up routine by Baron Cohen) is frequently at odds with Hayden, a clean-cut pillar of righteousness perfectly suited to the eminently sober Redmayne. That rivalry — the clash of two smart guys unable to separate ego from idealism — drives the plot, giving shape and momentum to an otherwise sprawling circus of characters, including the presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose reactionary behaviour is chalked up to the violence and paranoia of the times.

While the casting is eccentric, the almost cartoonish nature of the characters invariably gives way to a few moments of subtlety, many of which come from Mark Rylance as defense lawyer William Kunstler. Conversely, there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as junior prosecutor Richard Schultz, the archetypal Sorkinian liberal establishment figure with real doubts about the side he's chosen and who consequently finds himself rooting for the defendants.   

If I sound harsh on Sorkin, it’s only because I’ve come to expect better from the creator of beloved series The West Wing and The Social Network, and the man who is for my money one of our greatest screenwriters. Indeed, Sorkin has a singular, flowingly combative love of words and for drama that’s charged with competing notions of what’s right. Sorkin’s work, when tempered by the eye of second person as director (as is the case with David Fincher in The Social Network or Rob Reiner in A Few Good Men) is wry, measured, and often profound. However, when it comes to the films Sorkin writes and directs, like Molly’s Game and Chicago 7, his work has a tendency to devolve into overblown, self-congratulatory liberal fantasy.

To his credit, Sorkin is not merely reconstructing the hippie fashion, the hey, mans, or the rock psychedelia of the 60s, but that doesn’t mean Chicago 7 necessarily rings true, either. It’s possible that the 60s were like Sorkin says they were. Then again, he has never been a realist; he is rhetorical, theatrical, and argumentative. He's a master of hefty monologues, sitcom beats, walk-and-talks, and mansplaining. And rightly or wrongly, he's damn good at it.

Ultimately, Sorkin captures a lot of serious ideas — war and peace, racism, democracy, justice, and order — pretty neatly within a 2 hour and 10-minute timeframe. While the film clumsily skirts the edge of silliness (albeit sometimes intentionally), it’s also not one that can be easily shaken off. This is, in part, an accident of timing, as the socio-political strife of 1968 seems to echo throughout today’s climate. In that sense, The Trial of the Chicago 7 offers an account, both alarming and reassuring, of an earlier moment of extreme conflict and polarisation, and the fallout that can follow.

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