The Trial of the Chicago 7

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in Sorkin's latest movie based on the 1969 court case about riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In a strange confluence of events, Netflix has two movies competing for award consideration in 2020 that both begin with montages of archival footage depicting the overwhelming events in America during 1968 and the Vietnam War. In “Da 5 Bloods,” the montage serves as a moving, haunting evaluation of director Spike Lee’s career, exploring the mesh points between politics, violence, history, war and racism.

In “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the opening montage is also indicative of the decades-long career of an accomplished artist who’s changed filmmaking. Archival videos of speeches from Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. are interspersed with reenactments and crackling dialogue that could only have come from one source: Aaron Sorkin.

The montage hints at the tone to come: one slightly more concerned with pop entertainment and overt emotion rather than a nuanced understanding of what the activism and violence of the 1960s wrought on American life. None of this is to say that “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is bad; it's actually quite good. But what this approach does show is the bargain that a viewer has to make with Aaron Sorkin: in order to enjoy his mastery of acrobatic dialogue and commercial appeal, one has to throw out any concept of subtlety.

Debuting on Netflix, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows the legendary 1969 court case where seven anti-Vietnam War activists were prosecuted for conspiracy to start riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sporting a series of masterful performances, particularly from Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kuntsler, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” feels like a microcosm of late-period Sorkin’s political and social concerns.

By returning to the courtroom as he so often does, Sorkin’s entirely in his element, as the setting allows for dialogue heavy scenes of characters spouting witty statements about their beliefs and the difference between right and wrong. In that way, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is Sorkin’s most traditional courtroom drama since his masterful debut, “A Few Good Men,” another film about duty and the occasionally violent impulses of the American government.

But as has increasingly happened in Sorkin’s work, his unchecked penchant for flowery proclamations often undercuts the integrity of his point. The reason for this is likely Sorkin’s transition to directing, as “The Trial of the Chicago 7” marks his second directorial effort after 2017’s “Molly’s Game.” Sorkin’s directorial style can only be described as barely adequate, as he trudges along like an untalented version of Rob Reiner, with a flat and occasionally off-putting visual style.

Yet, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” succeeds. At this point in his career, when Sorkin is at his best, he’s the best pure screenwriter in the world, and talented actors will always luxuriate in his beautiful, showy style.

Benefiting the most from this collaboration is Baron Cohen, playing off his “Borat” persona as a provocateur yet managing to earnestly engage with the material. Baron Cohen will likely be receiving Academy Award attention for his performance, but the film’s clear breakout, and likely the current frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor, is Abdul-Mateen II as Seale.

A force of nature whenever he’s on screen, Abdul-Mateen II brings an infectious sense of energy and excitement to every scene he’s in. As a somewhat separate entity from the rest of the cast, Abdul-Mateen II revels in his role by embracing his inherent charisma and overpowering everything else in the movie.

Last but not least, Rylance takes his rather thankless part as Kuntsler and turns him into a fully realized character rather than a pseudo-exposition machine. When all of these pieces manage to work together, the film absolutely soars, particularly in the riveting flashback sequences of the Chicago riots intercut with courtroom questioning.

There’s another layer to “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which likely wasn’t on Sorkin’s mind when the film was made before COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd. In watching law enforcement officials assault protestors who are described as “the radical left wing,” it’s impossible not to feel a sense of history repeating itself in real time. When the film ends with Sorkin’s patented sense of uplift and sentimentality, it’s hard not to think that the heroism being celebrated may never have accomplished its goals.

This conundrum of progress versus reality is at its most apparent in Eddie Redmayne’s performance as activist leader Tom Hayden. Hayden, as a Kennedy-esque figure whose political views align the closest to Sorkin’s own, represents the idea of progressivism within American systems, engaging in revolution via compromise.

In the film's climactic closing sequence, Hayden takes a moment in the courtroom to engage in one final act of rebellion, completing his transformation from a mealy mouthed activist to a full-fledged revolutionary. Yet what the sequence and the film’s subsequent coda don’t entirely want to engage with is the real reason why Hayden’s allowed to rebel when others aren’t: the fact that he’s a straight-laced, upper-class white man.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” doesn’t shy away from racism as the relationship between Frank Langella’s bigotted character Judge Hoffman and Seale clearly shows. But Sorkin still clings to the shining-city-on-a-hill view of American exceptionalism; the idea that all it’d take for the country’s problems to disappear would be for the right people in the right room to talk with the right tone of voice. And while that image is comforting, one can’t watch the end of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” without wondering what all of this compromised rebellion has actually achieved.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.