Much of Aaron Sorkin’s second attempt at sitting in the directors chair, The Trial of the Chicago 7 hinges on the idea of organisation, or lack thereof. Instead of being a film narrowing down on an issue, it is a true story that concentrates on the kind of political activism that is right in Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The script, written by Sorkin and his cast of characters zero in on everything ailing a country going through a painful transformation. This might be his best work since The West Wing, a film that once again has him politicking but reeling in the grandstanding that ended up being projects like Molly’s Game and Studio 60s downfall, while still managing every now and then to skew towards the comical.
Revolving around the 1968 Chicago riots around the Democratic National Convention and the subsequent trial of the so called ‘Chicago 7’, a mixture of leaders from activist groups that assembled in Chicago to protest the Vietnam war. Each believing in different approaches to change while all wanting the same thing, their waring personalities make a joint defense increasingly difficult for their legal team but highly entertaining for the packed audience and captivated national audience it brought about.
Although plenty of Sorkin’s film is shocking thanks to an unflinchingly blunt but playfully lyrical script, one that juxtaposes politics and the law and how the two often meld imperceptibly, or even in this case, painfully obviously. It also has an unintended effect for a film released today where once again peaceful protests against universal wrongs, like the marches against police brtuality and racism following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, are being stomped into submission by organisations unwilling to change and politicians reluctant to listen. This might be a story about America long ago but look closely, its impossible to notice how, unfortunately, not much has changed on the surface.
While some might watch and see a courtroom drama, a conventionally drab and slow moving picture stuck in one room, listening to the same voices, Sorkin manages, not only because of some impressive editing but a vibrant colour pallette, to make the legal story exciting again. Re-infected with a sense of spectacle thanks to the comedic presence of defendants Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), who are played to perfection by Cohen and Strong, often highlighting the farcical nature of a trial with zero reason beyond embarassing self agrandising. While it stings occasionally of embelishment, the flights of fancy of an author with his own bias rolled into all the others on display, this long in the making retelling (the original script was written in 2007) has so many different personalities and opinions any contradictiory, left leaning ideals that seem too far-fetched seem to work in a story where everyone has a different viewpoint.
The real triumph here however is how Sorkin, despite a few strange directorial choices and whimsical jokes that don’t feel in keeping with his deeply intelligent but equally serious piece, touches on the pulse of a country that even today is rallying against inequality and injustice on a daily basis. The 8th member of the defendant table, Bobby Seale (an incandescent Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of the Black Panthers, a figure linked to the riots while never having anything to do with them, a lawyers trick to intimidate an all white jury, manages not only to play on modern feelings regarding deep rooted racism but Sorkin wants to tell this story from the position of white guilt, the kind that paints the rest of the defendant bench, these so called revolutionaries as cowards, people willing to act after the fact, not before it.
The film, despite a script that should be in consideration once we hit the delayed Oscar season this year, really shines through the varied performers Sorkin gets in front of his camera and while much praise will be thrown at Cohen for his against type and subdued depiction of Hoffman, the bulk of the films heavy lifting seems to be in the hands of Mark Rylance as their legal council William Kunstler who manages to exhude empathy through weighty legal jargon and play him as idealistic, judgemental and bitter, while much like Cohen, holding back just enough to see more under the surface. Throw in a contempable Frank Langella and a underutilized but impressive Joseph Gordon Levitt and The Trial of The Chicago 7 becomes an embarassment of riches.
While many will say that Sorkin’s second feature may seem like an accidental triumph, a political story that came out at just the right time. Personally, i find it hard to disagree that some of the charm here comes from its prescience but the sharp wit, clever editing and non linear storytelling, along with a cast bringing their A game makes it just as impressive.