As fate would have it, Academy Award winning screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, returned his long-gestating project, The Trial of the Chicago 7, in one of the most volatile periods in modern American history. In the wake of nationwide riots and protests surrounding ever-present issues like Black Lives Matter and police brutality, Chicago 7 recalls the story of the 1968 Chicago riots that began life as a peaceful protest outside the Democratic Convention but descended into chaos and a federal trial that spans several long months in the shadow of the Vietnam War. With an all-star cast at its disposal, Netflix’s latest prestige drama threatens to be one of the best films of the year.
After years of delivering iconic screenplays, Aaron Sorkin stepped into the director’s chair in 2017 with Molly’s Game and demonstrated that Sorkin’s talents on the page transferred to behind the camera. With a successful debut under his belt, Chicago 7 serves as a project for Sorkin to indulge himself with a film that is frequently funny and infuriating in equal measure. For as much poetic licence Sorkin has taken with his adaptation of this infamous court case (the timeline of the case has been altered for maximum dramatic impact), it confirms that reality is frequently the most compelling storyteller.
Chicago 7 is something of an actor’s showcase. The ensemble here is a veritable who’s who of A-list actors who all embody their characters to a tee. Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to the project when it started life back in 2007, and it’s easy to see why. His Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Youth International Party, is a free-wheeling, smarter-than-he-appears pothead on a mission to make a mockery of the judicial process. Cohen’s entire modus operandi throughout his career is making others uncomfortable for comedic gain, as shown in his Borat, Bruno, Who is America? characters; Cohen and Abbie Hoffman feel like kindred spirits.
Abbie’s sparring match with Frank Langella’s Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) is hilarious throughout, contempt of court charges be damned. Even better, though, is when Cohen drops the jokester act and delivers home truths about what exactly is going on here. In the film’s final act when Abbie takes the witness stand, Cohen delivers tender responses during his examination as someone who truly believed what he was fighting for was the right thing to be fighting for. With Borat 2 on the horizon (I know, I can’t believe it either), October sees both sides of his career clashing on opposing streaming services. I’m so glad we get to witness all of it.
The rest of the ensemble fare just as terrifically as Cohen. Eddie Redmayne, complete with a mostly convincing American accent, is a perfect fit for Tom Hayden, the inadvertent face of the Chicago 7. His unassuming nature combined with his fervent political beliefs come to the fore in bursts, but Redmayne gives Tom a youthful innocence as he’s thrust into the spotlight. When it comes his time to shine in one of the film’s absolute highest points as a key moment is finally revealed, his face off with his counsel, Mark Rylance’s Bill Kunstler, is a rousing success.
Jeremy Strong’s Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman’s partner in crime, is hilarious and a far cry from Succession’s neurotic, paranoid Kendall Roy. Rubin is all things peace and love, the quintessential hippie, even when teaching a class how to create a Molotov cocktail. John Carroll Lynch’s David Dellinger is the softly spoken pacifist who wants to stand for what’s right but refuses to do anything that would put himself or anyone in danger and stars in one of the film’s most shocking moments. On the prosecution, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a one-man army against the defendants as the youthful Richard Schultz. He’s a prosecutor with a heart, but when representing the US Government in the case, he will do everything in his power to achieve the desired result.
The challenge faced when part of such an elite cast of actors is two-fold. As the director, Sorkin must find time and balance in giving each of these characters their moment in the spotlight, something Sorkin handles masterfully. Every character gets a line, a scene, a moment to showcase their talents. For the actors, the challenge comes from standing out from the crowd. Here, three men stand out; Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Mark Rylance.
I’ve grouped these three together as most of the in-court conflict comes between them, constantly at odds over injustice and a blatantly biased judge. Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a vindictive, plain evil overlord of proceedings and plays fast and loose with his role. At times, Judge Hoffman felt like a teacher who had lost control of his classroom, throwing out sanctions left and right with gay abandon, but Langella’s performance is cold and calculated, flip flopping between pure evil and dithering geriatric at will.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Bobby Seale, the Chairman of the Black Panther Party, is the 8th man of the Chicago 7 (this is addressed), but the entire trial feels weighted against him from the start. Abdul-Mateen embodies this frustration superbly, constantly reminding the corrupt judge that he shouldn’t even be here, and when he eventually and inevitably loses his cool – as he had every right to – his sheer anger is plain to see. Of all the film’s highlights, the treatment of Bobby Seale is the most shocking and heart-wrenching.
Finally, we come to Mark Rylance. The Academy Award winning actor with more than a penchant for Shakespeare is absolute dynamite as the Chicago 7’s attorney, Bill Kunstler. He has a polite manner about him that comes crashing down as the trial rears its uglier, unlawful edge on his way to earning a phone book of contempt of court charges. He sympathises with Bobby Seale despite tragically being unable to represent him, challenges the judge at every turn, and delivers terrific line after terrific line on the way to the final verdict (“A lot of good advice this morning!”). Kunstler’s quiet, measured approach to the case breaks at one critical moment, the only moment in which his frustrations transfer to his tone, and a simple yell of “No he doesn’t!” reverberates throughout the court and the viewing audience. I couldn’t have loved Rylance’s performance anymore than I do, and after two viewings, consider me firmly on the Best Supporting Actor bandwagon.
Behind the camera, Sorkin deploys his favourite tropes to maximum impact. Sorkin’s love of musical theatre comes to the fore again with his staging and his knack for brilliantly rhythmic dialogue. Dialogue, naturally, dominates proceedings and works in tandem with the editing and camerawork, constantly reminding the audience of characters and crucial moments in the case to keep us in the loop throughout. One particular sequence, when the defence call their surprise, gravelly voiced star witness (to reveal who plays the star witness would ruin the surprise), brings all of Sorkin’s tendencies together as it combines quick, overlapping dialogue, fast cuts between several actors, and cranking the intensity dial up to 11 until the frustrating dénouement of the scene.
Throughout, Sorkin cleverly weaves his interpretation of events with original footage from the riot itself way back in 1968. As the riots themselves take place, composer Daniel Pemberton works in tandem with the edit, starting with a slow build-up on his 60s rock score before it all comes together in a cacophony of guitar riffs, drum rolls, gunfire, blood splatter, and people’s screams when the riot “takes the hill.” The riot sequences are a feast for the eyes and ears and very carefully treads the line in the blame game. In the end, the film falls firmly on one side of the debate, but the way it’s all framed by Sorkin and his script does a terrific job of placing the viewing audience in the shoes of the jury and raises a few questions of doubt regarding who exactly is to blame for all of this.
As much as I said The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an actor’s showcase, the entire film comes together to be a crowd-pleasing delight. It works on every key level – acting, writing, directing, music – to deliver something that will inspire discussion, make you laugh, and serve as a reminder that today, 52 years after the events of the Chicago 7, the same conversations still need to be had. Support those who seek justice, challenge those responsible for injustice. The whole world is watching.
Whether or not his work here earns the same level of adoration as he did for his work on The Social Network, one thing remains abundantly clear; Aaron Sorkin is a master of his craft. His ability to combine his wittiness (there are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines here) with his eloquent exchanges to deliver the right line at the right moment remains unparalleled. From A Few Good Men to The Social Network to Moneyball and now to The Trial of the Chicago 7, no one does it like Aaron Sorkin.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 comes to Netflix on October 16.