Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, hits Netflix today. The synopsis of the film is as follows:
What was intended to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into a violent clash with police and the National Guard. The organizers of the protest—including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale —were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot and the trial that followed was one of the most notorious in history.
Making a film about a trial interesting is not the easiest of tasks and one that Sorkin sometimes gets right and sometimes fails at. The film starts off at a pace with all the activists making their way to Chicago to protest against the increased draft during the Vietnam war, but it quickly slows down as we fast forward into the beginning of the trial proceedings. The Trial of the Chicago 7 wisely goes backwards in time at various points to flesh out what we’re being told in court.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a true ensemble piece. The eight activists and which actors play them in the film are as follows: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything, Fantastic Beasts), and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp of Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), both were of the Students for a Democratic Society. Counter-culture Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen of The Spy, Borat) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of Succession, Molly’s Game). MOBE organizers David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch of Fargo, The Founder), John Froines (Danny Flaherty of The Americans, King Jack) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins of Masters of Sex, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). The eighth defendant and the one who isn’t part of the titular Chicago 7 is Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of Watchmen, Aquaman).
That’s quite the cast, without even mentioning Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Ready Player One), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Snowden) and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon, Good Night and Good Luck). Frank Langella is the standout performer amongst the whole cast, as the grumpy and extremely biased Judge Julius Hoffman. Having a huge cast like this means a lot of people aren’t actually in it very much or they’re just sat at a table. But being the Judge allows Langella to have a hand in a lot of the proceedings.
This being an Aaron Sorkin film, you can expect a lot of talking but surprisingly not that much walking. Sorkin wrote and directed The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is only his second directing credit after Molly’s Game. He’s obviously best known as a writer for The West Wing, The Social Network and Moneyball among many others. There are a lot of words in this script and sadly there isn’t a lot of energy in those words outside of Sacha Baron Cohen’s humorous Abbie Hoffman. There are few moments for the actors to show their emotions rather than talk talk talk, a feature of a Sorkin film that I don’t love.
Sorkin is within his right to change history for a dramatic feature, but from what I have read he has changed quite a bit and the change in Gordon-Levitt’s character is perhaps one of the biggest missteps. Gordon-Levitt is defence attorney Kunstler, who was very against the activists and what they were trying to achieve in real life. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Kunstler isn’t sure whether he is on the right side of history. Sorkin gets a lot of negative criticism thrown his way for putting his liberalism into his films, on this occasion I would agree with the criticism. You have to change some things to make it more cinematic but making Gordon-Levitt be this stereotype doesn’t add anything and really isn’t necessary.
Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) isn’t a large part of The Trial of the Chicago 7, unsurprisingly he isn’t treated well by the police as a Black Panther in the late sixties. His mistreatment was shown through the shock of the other activists, none were black, and essentially becomes a moment for them to grow. Seale may not be part of the Chicago 7 but his story wasn’t handled with care and was more about what the white people felt than what he was going through. Sorkin should have done better.
The film was released in cinemas before its release on Netflix to make it eligible for awards season. In a normal year, I would expect it to get a lot of nominations but few wins. This year, it could win a lot. The Trial of the Chicago 7 probably is one of the best theatrical releases of the year, because we haven’t had many. It’s shot well, the score is strong and there are some very good performances but it’s not a classic. It feels very pertinent to today despite it being based in 1968 because we haven’t grown as a society in fifty years.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is very much an Aaron Sorkin film, a bit too much talking and a little preachy, but also well-made and entertaining. The quieter moments of the film allow the actors to actually show the characters they’re portraying but those moments are too few and far between. Sorkin has a tendency to add 100 words when 10 would do. Many love his scripts, personally I find them a little much at times but this film will please all the Sorkin fans out there.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available now on Netflix