Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella
The right to protest has been foundational in the formation of the United States, but also as a way to hold the institutions of power accountable. It gives the people the power to collectively speak their minds and make their voices heard. As much as this right exists, the institutions of power hate it when the people exercise it, which leads to the events taking place in The Trial of the Chicago 7. With compelling courtroom scenes and plenty to unpack, this film shows the best and worst of its writer/director.
Following an attempted protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violence broke out and eight men have been charged with conspiracy to cross state lines and incite violence. The eight men now must put up their defense as it becomes increasingly clear their judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), has no interest in hearing out any of their arguments.
Who doesn’t love a good ol’ courtroom drama? Even with the boringness of legal proceedings, the arguments made and the stakes involved always allow for emotions to spike. Aaron Sorkin has not been a stranger to this type of storytelling and he appears to relish in it when observing his filmography. With The Trial of the Chicago 7, he takes on a true story with so many moving parts and for the most part, he manages to carry the emotion of the situation, which feels far more timely this year than any other. With the tall order of juggling so many of the characters, some get more shine than others but it displays a true ensemble performance.
Along with the eight men on trial, a plethora of other characters with well-known names appear all over this story with all of the moving parts. The main divide within the defendant group occurs between Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddy Redmayne) as they define two distinct sides of the same fight. Hayden believes in the power of peaceful protest and revolutionizing the system through getting the right people elected while Hoffman would prefer to burn it all down. They receive their moments to go back and forth and they come closest to being the leads of this story overall. Whether or not Baron Cohen was the right casting decision for this character, the outlandish zaniness provides a level of over the top behavior to make even the driest parts of the movie enjoyable.
The word enjoyable always comes up when thinking about the effect of this movie overall as it has a litany of issues one can parse through but overall it achieves the desired impact and done so in a way many can process. The writing had snappy dialogue just like many of Sorkin’s works but the directing really struggled throughout. In moments it failed to share much dynamism, which came as a surprise as his first directorial effort in Molly’s Game really worked with the level of flash and kinetic energy used to propel the story forward. This time around, he makes some odd choices of when to cut scenes with limited effect much like when Hoffman testifies and says one of the more poignant lines in the entire film and a strange fade to black appears that makes little to no sense and feels abrupt. The film, additionally, has far too many cheesy moments that made it feel ripped straight out of the 90s, especially with the eye roll-worthy final scene.
Even with those glaring technical issues, The Trial of the Chicago 7 manages to have enough bright spots to find the overall experience something worthy. Each of the characters has a moment to shine with my personal favorite of the bunch being Mary Rylance, as the defendants’ attorney William Kunstler. As an actor mostly known for being level-headed and won an Academy Award with an unenthusiastic but strong performance in Bridge of Spies, the moments where he has righteous outbursts feel so terrifically satisfying in the film. These scenes of anger work because grave injustices were done in that courtroom due to the monstrous behavior of the judge, Julius Hoffman portrayed by the always-great Frank Langella. The veteran actor really captured the harsh and obviously partial actions of this judge that would make even a saint’s blood boil. If anything, it shows judges need to be held accountable for the frightening amount of power they carry in the courtroom where it can be obvious a grave injustice is occurring but there’s not much to do. If a villainous character aggravates you to the point where you want to punch them through the screen then they certainly did their job well.
In many respects, Sorkin wants to have his cake and eat it too in The Trial of the Chicago 7 where he displays the sides of the accused men but also wants to display the greatness of the systems. It comes through with one of the characters when they say the institutions are great, there just happens to be bad people currently running them. A direct message about the current Presidential administration, but Sorkin attempts to find the middle ground by making some characters more sympathetic than they deserve in an effort to show there are good people doing the work in this system. Mixed messages at times, but this film proves to be one that audiences will enjoy because it has those emotionally charged moments and feel-good ending to culminate into an important story many may not know about.