The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a new Netflix movie from writer/director Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Molly’s Game), and marks his long-awaited cinematic return the courtroom drama, his first that I can think of since A Few Good Men in 1992. It follows exactly what the title says, as seven young Democratic men, who organized a protest against the Vietnam War, are placed on trial for conspiracy to incite a riot on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. As the trial begins, the legitimacy of everything, from the defendants to what lawyers are present to the court itself, is called into question, and with the whole world watching, things going the wrong way could spell doom for all who showed up to protest. Packed with an all-star cast (including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeremy Strong, and Mark Rylance) and Sorkin’s usual trademarks, this is Netflix’s first major drop in the pool that is awards season, placing the streaming service firmly in the race to Oscar night.
Netflix is coming into this awards season firing on all cylinders, as far as their lineup is concerned. Most film enthusiasts will have their eyes more closely pinned to David Fincher’s Mank coming in December, or even Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, which has already stirred up early Green Book levels of controversy, but Chicago 7 as the first of the streaming service’s slate is sure to set things up in a big way going forward. Whether this film can hold momentum all the way from October to February is anyone’s guess at this point, but it’s safe to say that Netflix is definitely counting on some recognition for Sorkin at least (and perhaps cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who just missed the cut on last year’s nominations for shooting Ford v Ferrari).
Aaron Sorkin is, without a doubt, one of the most talented screenwriters of the last 50 years, and perhaps ever to grace American movie or television screens. From the aforementioned A Few Good Men to The West Wing to the critically-lauded The Social Network, his scripts have almost always been some of the most impressive, incisive, and smartly written of the years in which they were released (or aired, in The West Wing’s case). Things tend to get a bit more dicey, though, when one puts his writing acumen up against his directorial skill, most notably in his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, which faired mostly well with critics, but couldn’t cut it with the rest of the Oscar nominees that year. The Trial of the Chicago 7 finds itself in a similar spot, with the script and editing being its strongest attributes, while the direction feels like it belongs to a slightly less smart movie. Not much less smart, but enough that it feels somewhat borrowed from a movie Sorkin didn’t write.
However, plenty in The Trial of the Chicago 7 works well enough that one need not worry about Sorkin being a bad director. For one, the script is sharp, incisive, and at time provocational. Sorkin is known for fast-moving dialogue and re-interpretation of situations discussed within that dialogue, but here, the speed falls back a bit to allow more room for dramatic resonance (although it picks back up during a couple of fantastic montage edit sequences Sorkin has always been great at). His films have always been politically-minded, so one shouldn’t be surprised that he’s got some things to say about the state of politics and the world today – even so, it is an astounding feat how Sorkin captures a famous moment in history (which encompasses other famous moments in history) by near-perfectly mirroring the socio-political landscape of today, and the clarity of this image is striking. The way he frames particular scenes in order to set up miscommunications that come up later shouldn’t work after the third or fourth time we’ve seen him do it, but yet again, he pulls it off, although his more optimistic view of the consequences begotten by these clarified mishaps can sometimes be a little annoying.
Eddie Redmayne acts as the ostensible lead of the movie for much of the film’s runtime, and he does what he can with the material, but like Sorkin’s direction, the performance just doesn’t feel quite up to par with what the script requires in terms of weight. There’s something there, and it’s a good something, but Sorkin scripts require expert performances worthy of discussion for the next ten years or so, and Redmayne feels slightly out of place struggling to keep his American accent fluid. Perhaps if the film were directed by someone else, the script might have gotten more out of him, but as it stands, it’s not bothersome enough to distract from what really matters. Mark Rylance’s wig? That might be enough to distract. (Although maybe that’s just because I know that’s not what his actual head looks like.)
The true stars of the film are Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, and surprisingly enough, Frank Langella. Abdul-Mateen II makes the absolute most out of his performance, and it’s really his character, Black Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale, that drives most of the action inside the courtroom, as Seale’s trial began without his lawyer, who was absent in order to recover from gall bladder surgery at the time. As the other defendants start to see how Seale was treated by the court, various plans arise among each of them, some to get him to change lawyers, some to move in solidarity with him, but always, he is at the center of the changes in the script that the lawyers have to make in order to move on to a successful trial.
It’s easy to forget the man behind the upcoming Borat sequel is also one hell of a dramatic actor, but Sacha Baron Cohen brings it and then some. As maybe the second most focused-on figure behind Redmayne, Cohen’s performance is absolutely one worthy of an Oscar nomination, and would be all but guaranteed to receive one in a normal movie year. There’s a moment (minor spoiler for…history, I guess) where he gets up on the stand, and as he spars with the prosecuting attorneys, one can tell that this is meant to be the big scene of the movie – and he kills it. The fade to black edit does come in a little too fast once the scene is complete, but if the scene had continued just three seconds longer, that would definitely be the clip the Academy would play on Oscar night.
But the scene-stealer even I didn’t see coming is Frank Langella as Judge Hoffman. I remember seeing Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon in 2008, but have hardly seen him in movies since then. Perhaps I simply was looking in the wrong spot, but regardless, Langella owns every scene he’s in with this movie. His character is most ostensibly the “villain” of the piece (and pretty unsurprising, given Sorkin’s political leanings), but he’s so good at it, I genuinely started to hate him over the course of the film. Playing an antagonistic force in any movie typically requires a compelling performance, but Langella so commands the screen when the trial is on that I was most interested in what he was going to do in response to the trial, rather than in the trial itself. It’s a powerhouse supporting turn from him, and I really hope we see more Frank Langella in awards-season movies, cause he’s one of the best people to handle this kind of material.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 may or may not be your favorite movie of the year so far, depending on how well you vibe with Aaron Sorkin’s directorial efforts, but it’s an undeniably good feeling to hear one of his scripts out loud again, especially in an era where we don’t have many chances to see awards-hopeful content outside of festival circuits. The script is smart, incisive, and almost freakishly timely, the performances are all mostly great, and it’s safe to say Netflix definitely has an Oscar contender on their hands. If you’re looking for something to watch this weekend, treat yourself to a little Sorkin.
I’m giving “The Trial of the Chicago 7” an 8.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.