The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin's second directorial effort, and it has all the ingredients we've come to expect from the writer's work: quirky but fast-quipping characters, high-stakes courtroom drama, politically charged subject matter, and a flare for the sometimes over-theatrical. He plays a bit fast and loose with the real-life events of the infamous 1969 trial, injecting further tension and melodrama into proceedings that were already stranger than fiction, but the product is a thoroughly entertaining ride through the turbulent times it tackles, featuring compelling clashes of ideals, and a few must-see moments brought to life by an all-star cast, echoing loudly into 2020.
The film follows the trial of seven (originally eight) defendants which includes well-known activists like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite the notorious riot that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sorkin sets the scene with a gripping montage of real footage that highlights the backdrop of unrest amid the country's ever-growing involvement in the Vietnam War, and then proceeds in his typical ping-ponging fashion. Quick introductions of the major players in the days leading to the convention, a jump forward to focus on the trial it spawned, and flashbacks along the way to raw portrayals of the protests, the police response, and ensuing violence in the streets.
The writer, whose career was launched by the success of A Few Good Men and most recently adapted To Kill A Mockingbird for the Broadway stage, is unsurprisingly most comfortable in the courtroom, as that's where the film is delighted to spend most of its run-time. It's in an effective blend of straight-from-the-insane-transcript depiction and Sorkin's own heightened re-imagination of enthralling cross-examinations, emphatic objections, judiciary jabs, and defendant outbursts where the script really sings. The chance to be one of the actors hitting those big, awards-worthy notes certainly helped attract a star-studded ensemble, and the impressive cast delivers with magnetic performances from top to bottom. Cohen and Redmayne are especially notable, alongside fellow stand-outs Mark Rylance as the Chicago 7's eccentric defense attorney William Kunstler, and recent Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the eighth defendant Bobby Seale; all of whom have a chance to see their names pop up in this year's Oscar nominations.
"The whole world is watching" is a refrain that the film makes sure to underscore through chants outside of the courthouse, and it's a sentiment that will no doubt ring familiar for the world that's watching today, as audiences and critics alike can't help but draw comparisons between the climate of the 1969 illustrated on screen and our own divisive landscape. Given that it was shot in the fall of 2019 after the script's long and storied development, and according to Mr. Sorkin himself, the movie isn't responding directly to current events, but rather remarkably, it seems that today's circumstances began to mirror the film's in eerie ways as its Netflix release drew closer. It is clearly a product of a growingly contentious environment which shares parallels with the late 60s, and as someone known for constantly tweaking his scripts and never shying away from social commentary, it's not difficult to see the ways in which the contemporary zeitgeist seeped into the film both subtly, and sometimes not so subtly.
The script capably uses its characters as weapons of different principles, armed with their words as the bullets in dialogue-driven combat, illuminating different ideas about respect for authority, the impact of power on justice, and the opposing approaches to progress. Pitting Hayden against Hoffman as one of the story's driving tensions is an effective choice, allowing it to grapple with the ideological debates of both the trial's time and ours in engaging and thought-provoking ways, even if it means somewhat re-shaping those real-life minds in the process. Sorkin is known for taking full advantage of poetic license and he certainly does so here, exaggerating characters' actions and their place in the chronology, but largely in the interest of drumming up intensity within the conflicts of the film, which provide it with some of its most exciting moments and tastiest lines.
Perhaps The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is at times a bit over-inventive, embellishing scenes to manipulate some extra sympathy in ways that range from merely unnecessary to bordering on full deception. The real trial was so wild that it's almost impossible to tell what's fact and what's fiction, and some of the most unbelievable occurrences didn't even make it into the film. Sorkin tends to take what's there and ratchet it all the way up for dramatic effect, at the risk of irking some viewers with cheesy music swells and idealistic mic drops, and this film offers one such scene towards the end that is sure to invite some criticism. But it's hard to deny that the scene strikes a satisfying chord, and makes for a resounding closing argument to a very worthwhile film.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is streaming now on Netflix.
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