Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial feature, The Trial of the Chicago 7, dramatizes the aftermath of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Nation Convention. Led by the Justice Department, newly under the Nixon administration, seven different activists including an eighth in then-Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, were arraigned on a level of charges such as conspiracy in a hostile trial that would prove to be a corroborated attack on Free Speech.
Building a career off writing fiery confrontations and snappy banter, and nabbing a (well-deserved) Oscar in tow alongside several nominations, Sorkin would seem to be the ideal candidate to pen this dramatization. Not only writing but directing, it’s ultimately Sorkin that makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a less sturdy experience.
The array of actors that Sorkin has assembled is primarily what keeps the ship afloat. Sacha Baron Cohen is dynamic in his multi-dimensional turn as Abbie Hoffman. Utilizing his skills as both a comedian and a dramatic performer, Cohen’s Hoffman is expertly portrayed as both a sarcastic misfit who revels in the vexing of authoritative figures and a leader who would risk everything to change his current landscape. Cohen brings a nuance to the role that sustains throughout even the more bombastic moments. He and Jeremy Strong, who portrays Hoffman’s co-head of the “Yippies” Jerry Rubin, have a naturalistic chemistry with one another in one of the films most compelling elements.
Oscar-winners Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne are equally commanding with Redmayne at his most charismatic self. Yahya Abdul Mateen II, known for memorable side-turns in Aquaman and Us, is a true revelation as Bobby Seale. The detailed weariness in his eyes calls to mind an early Denzel Washington. Even as one of his best scenes is haunted by the classic “white savior” trope. Mateen is a new notable actor who can say nothing, and still speak volumes.
Supporting players Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch and Kelvin Harrison Jr. each bring a level of gravitas to their characters. Even Michael Keaton makes a late-in-the-game appearance in one of the films most engaging sequences.
Sorkin, directing for Netflix after Paramount sold the film following the Pandemic, finds more open-hearted humanity in the characters here than in his directing debut, Molly’s Game. That makes Chicago 7 occasionally riveting and powerful, but almost equally eye-rolling and cornball. There’s no denying Aaron Sorkin knows how to write a courtroom drama in his sleep; what is concerning is that there’s a handful of scenes that feel as such.
Sorkin finds no shortage of theatricality in the drama — Frank Langella’s snarling “Judge Hoffman” is Nurse Ratched-level conniving — and he delivers the passionate, snappy dialogue you’ve come to expect. There’s also a higher level of old-fashioned, centrist storytelling here that just feels out of date.
The creative liberties taken with the story are largely laughable and some sequences are easily the worst material Sorkin has created thus far. Specifically, the ending is as Hollywood-ized as they come.
Sorkin’s visual flair from his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, has all but diminished. Chicago 7 has all the cinematic qualities of a 90’s TNT original film. Thankfully, the picture is given a boost by the kinetic editing by Alan Baumgarten.
Chicago 7 is at its best when its holding up a mirror to our current political landscape. The sequence of what starts out as a peaceful protest that turns violent at the drop of one Police nightstick is portrayed as effectively as can be; a moment in which we witness a group of cops remove their badges and name tags rings hauntingly true. This is also one of the few moments where Sorkin shows some resemblance of visual distinction.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin’s most flawed piece of work, but one that skirts by on the inherit power of its true story. The cast is one of the most finely assembled of the year, with Cohen and Mateen giving Oscar level performances, and this is a story that deserves more attention. However, Sorkin proves to be his own worst enemy in recapturing this important piece of American history.