The Trial of the Chicago 7 is nothing if not a showcase for great performances. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin has his flaws – some of which are on display here – but one thing he does very well is creating the kind of punchy, snappy, rat-a-tat dialogue that good actors love to sink their teeth into. Some of that dialogue may not always sound natural – indeed, it often borders on speechifying. But Sorkin’s way with words, and a good actor’s talent for delivering those words, usually makes all the difference.
There’s going to be a lot of talk about how The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a “timely” film. And it is – it deals with protestors being targeted by a corrupt justice system, something that remains a serious problem in the United States. And part of that timeliness is baked-into the film; in some cases, it even hinders things. Sorkin just can’t resist spelling out things that can be read as a commentary on both the past and present – someone holds up a sign reading LOCK THEM UP; “The police don’t start riots!” one pro-cop character angrily snarls; “The President isn’t a client of the attorney general,” another character plainly states; and there’s an entire scene where everything stops so characters can weigh the pros and cons of voting, even if the candidate in question isn’t particularly popular.
These moments don’t ring false, per se, but they feel like the type of scenes Sorkin underlined in red pen multiple times in his copy of the script; scenes that practically cry out “THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT ISSUES THAT ARE STILL IMPORTANT TODAY!” Still, what an actor’s showcase this is! Sorkin has assembled a killer cast, all of whom are really swinging for the fences. Some are more successful than others, but overall, everyone is bringing everything they’ve got to the table. Sorkin is also wise enough to give all of his actors their own individual moments to shine, which is no easy feat since there are so many people to keep track of here.
It’s 1969. The ’60s, a turbulent decade that Sorkin recaps with an oddly breezy intro scored to out-of-place upbeat music, are at a close, and some of that decade’s biggest counter-culture figures have now found themselves on trial. In 1968, these people gathered for the Democratic National Convention to protest Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate many considered no better than Republican candidate Richard Nixon, especially when it came to the issue of the Vietnam War. The protestors went to Chicago hoping for a peaceful protest, but things broke out into violence.
Now, eight people are standing trial for that violence. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is clear from the jump that this trial is political theater. Nixon won the White House, obviously, and his new Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) wants charges brought even though Mitchell’s predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), and his Justice Department determined that the riots were started by the Chicago police and not the protestors. Mitchell doesn’t care about that – he’s the one who says cops don’t start riots. And he’s also still bitter that Clark refused to resign his post until the last possible minute. In Mitchell’s mind, this is his way to get back at Clark and the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
Young Justice Department lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is brought in to prosecute, and while he has no love for the protestors, he also doesn’t think there’s much of a case. But he goes forward with it anyway, because he does what he’s told. And so the so-called Chicago 7 go to trial. They are: flower-power Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); the more straight-laced Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); the somewhat nebbish Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), who seem completely out of place among the rest of the group; and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
If you’re counting you’ll notice there are eight men listed above, not seven. That’s because Seale’s lawyer ended up in the hospital before trial, and Seale did not want to be represented by the lawyers representing the other seven men, primarily because he had absolutely nothing to do with them – he left Chicago before the riots even began. Yet despite not having adequate representation, the trial against Seale was allowed to continue, until the government eventually blinked and moved for a mistrial to have his case thrown out. Abdul-Mateen II is commanding here, and while he ultimately has less screentime than the others – he’s out of the film halfway through – he makes every scene he has count, playing Seale as someone boiling with righteous anger at how he’s being railroaded. It comes to a head in a horrifying moment where Seale is pulled from the courtroom after voicing loud objections, physically abused, and then bound and gagged. It’s a nightmare moment, and the fact that it really happened to Seale in a court of law in the United States of America is nothing short than appalling. The movie even makes a point of having prosecutor Schultz voice objections.
But that comes later. First, the trial gets off on incredibly shaky ground as it becomes immediately apparent that the judge overseeing the case, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is unabashedly biased against the defendants and maybe even incompetent. Langella is perfectly infuriating here, playing the character not as sinister but rather as someone who is completely confident in his own abilities and righteousness, even though it’s painfully obvious to everyone else he’s anything but.
This is all so frustrating to William Kunstler, the lawyer defending the 7, played to perfection by Mark Rylance. In a film with wall-to-wall great performances, Rylance’s is the greatest, primarily because he manages to make his work here seem so natural. The other actors are all doing memorable stuff, but there’s never a single moment in any of the other performances where we’re not aware that these guys are acting. Rylance, in contrast, feels less like he’s giving a performance and more like he’s embodying a character. He plays Kunstler as a man who believes in the law, and who – at first – refuses to accept that this trial is politically motivated. But as the judge dismisses one solid objection after another it becomes abundantly clear to Kunstler that he was wrong, and that this is a very political trial, like it or not. It’s magnificent to watch Rylance weigh these contrasts in his character’s mind; we can feel his anguish as he slowly realizes the law he swears by is being so shamelessly exploited for political gains.
As for the defendants, all of them have their own moments in the spotlight – save for Froines and Weiner, who are treated as little more than scenery. Cohen gets the flashiest performance as the lively Hoffman, and while the actor’s accent keeps slipping all over the place, he turns in strong work, particularly in the moments where he stops joking around and has to get serious. Strong’s Rubin is treated almost like his sidekick, and the actor, unfortunately, decides to adopt a voice that makes him sound exactly like Tommy Chong (the real Rubin did not sound like this based on interviews I’ve watched). Odd voice choice aside, Strong gets big laughs – and so does Cohen, primarily because Sorkin’s script is often quite funny despite the heavy themes at work.
Redmayne’s Tom Hayden is eventually positioned to be something of a lead character as the film progresses, and Redmayne’s work is solid if not flashy. Lynch, as David Dellinger, once again proves that if you put him in your movie, your movie will instantly be better every time he’s on-screen. He, too, doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but a moment where he finally loses his cool in court is electrifying.
And just when we’ve become used to all these performances after spending scene after scene with these individuals, Sorkin delivers a big jolt more than halfway through by bringing in Michael Keaton’s Ramsey Clark. Keaton is only in two scenes in the film, but gosh does he take them, tuck them under his arm, and run the hell away with them. Clark is well-aware of how trumped-up the trial is, but as the former Attorney General, he has very little power. Still, that doesn’t stop Sorkin from giving Keaton two magnificent moments where he flexes his character’s intellect.
Sorkin is known for his dialogue rather than his direction, and after his second feature-directing gig, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. He remains a master of snappy lines but his filmmaking prowess continues to leave something to be desired. He clearly understands that he doesn’t need the film to be visually flashy since the real fireworks are coming from the performances, but his rather pedestrian approach continues to hamper him. Most of the shots here are medium, eye-level affairs, and for a film with so many characters, Sorkin often seems afraid to let them all share the same frame. This often runs the risk of making Chicago 7 come across as inert – a mood that thankfully doesn’t take hold, thanks to the strength of all those performances. And for a film with such a powerful, timely message, there are long stretches where Chicago 7 is too sterile; too cold. The filmmaking is in dire need of the same sort of fire and passion inherent in the performances.
Language is Sorkin’s power, and it’s easy to see what drew him to this project: language is what gives the characters here their power as well. And while there are moments that sound like Sorkin is preaching to the choir, there’s a great emphasis on the words the characters use, and how those words either get them in trouble, or ultimately give them strength. From a movie-making perspective, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is sturdy but not particularly revelatory. But as a delivery system for great performers rattling off great dialogue, it’s almost unbeatable.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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