‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Is a Timely Courtroom Drama

If people worry about Disney creating every blockbuster film, they better at least get used to Netflix owning every Oscar contender, too.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the tale of the group of protesters who in 1968 were charged with inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. The second directorial effort from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, it features an ensemble cast, including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, and Jeremy Strong.

Like “Greyhound” and “The Lovebirds,” this was originally supposed to be a theatrical release before the pandemic hit, but was sold from Paramount to Netflix (for a cool $56 million). I love Aaron Sorkin, despite a lukewarm reaction to his directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” and always look forward to his films. “Trial of the Chicago 7” had a long road to the (small) screen, starting off as a Steven Spielberg project in 2006. It bounced around, with Ben Stiller and Paul Greengrass briefly attached, before Sorkin took it on as his second directorial effort, and it marks a step up from his first outing.

In large ensemble pieces like this it can sometimes be tough to have a stand out, but this film manages to have several. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Richard Schultz, the young lawyer tasked by new AG John Mitchell to get the group convicted. He sympathizes with the group of radical lefties despite finding their tactics and goals immature, and is really the only character with any sort of development and layers. He owns the best sequence of the film (that I won’t spoil), and was my favorite character.

Fresh off an Emmy win, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seal, the eighth member of the group who was lumped into the trial because he is a Black Panther. Abdul-Mateen displays growing but controlled rage as a black man who was essentially only on trial for his skin, and all too often his situation reminds us of one black men still sometimes face. The real standout in my eyes, though, is prankster Sacha Baron Cohen as hippie Abbie Hoffman. Wearing Hoffman’s thick Bahston accent, Cohen is charming and just a freebird, and while we have seen him in serious roles before, this is a more nuanced performance from him. If this film gets any acting nominations, it’ll be for Cohen and Abdul-Manteen.

Frank Langella portrays the judge overseeing the trial, Julius Hoffman, and he is so frustrating to watch. He refuses to let Abdul-Mateen wait to have a lawyer present, he doesn’t allow testimony, and he makes it impossible for the group to get a step ahead. The fact that by all accounts it was an accurate portrayal of Hoffman makes it all the more infuriating. Rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (soon to be seen in “Judas and the Black Messiah” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and he has a presence despite the limited scenes, and Eddie Redmayne is solid, even though he has the most inconsistent American accent ever.

As a director, Sorkin has a much bigger scale here than in “Molly’s Game.” The opening sequences gives us just how chaotic and tense the world the film takes place in was, while the riot sequences have great, intense build-up. It is crazy how similar the political and social climates of 1969 and 2020 are, between race issues and police brutality. Sorkin could have fleshed out more of the characters besides Gordin-Levitt and trimmed some scenes down, but this is much better-paced than “Molly’s Game” (editor Alan Baumgarten cuts it together very well, jumping between the riot and the trial).

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t the snappiest Sorkin script, but it is his most honest in quite some time, possibly even since his Oscar-winning “Social Network” (which just turned 10, happy birthday to the GOAT). The cast all turn in solid performances (including one fun extended cameo), and there are some classic Sorkin lines. Being a Netflix film, this will be instantly available to everyone and in a year of uncertainty and theater closures, it is comforting that we will have a semi-normal awards season after all.

Critics Rating: 8/10


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