Around the country, Americans are protesting. From the streets of Louisville where people march against racism and in search of justice for Breonna Taylor and so many others, to affluent suburban neighborhoods where the mildly inconvenienced gather to challenge a piece of fabric, Americans have embraced their most fundamental right this summer, good, bad or indifferent.
Time and time again, however, those in power who claim to stand for these foundational American values are the ones seeking to limit those very ideals through fear, intimidation and violence. This abuse of power and fear mongering is not a new concept – it’s shown up throughout American history at the country’s most pivotal moments – which is why Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” feels as timely now as ever. In reality, though, the subject matter is timeless.
In “Chicago 7,” Sorkin has crafted an inspiring and compelling courtroom showdown that feels far more like an action-thriller than a procedural drama, thanks in large part to the wordsmith’s iconic rapid-fire and whip-smart dialogue. Add in a powerful narrative and a truly stellar ensemble cast anchored by standout performances by Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and it’s easy to see how this film is bound to become a Best Picture frontrunner.
Set in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the true story of a group of anti-Vietnam War protest leaders who were targeted by the U.S. government and charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after the uprising turned into a deadly clash with the police. What ensued was one of the most notorious and widely-covered federal trials in American history, as the group of defendants became known as the “Chicago 7” and inspired counter-protests and revolutionaries across the country.
Among the varied levels of corruption within the legal system presiding over the case, one of the most egregious oversights was the fact that the seven – or eight defendants, initially – barely even knew each other prior to the trial. The group runs the gamut from the carefree hippies Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong) to the buttoned down Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and everyone in between, including Boy Scout troop leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and the less extreme Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). Then, there’s the eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, who was only in Chicago for 48 hours. From the sparring personalities to the logical inconsistencies, it’s clear that these men were incapable of working together, much less conspiring to incite a riot.
Still, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are dead set on convicting the protestors, regardless of whatever evidence their attorneys, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), present.
What ensues is an all-out battle for justice, as the Chicago 7 are up against government tyranny and hidden political agendas, and the result is a shocking, infuriating, yet inspiring legal drama in a way only Sorkin knows how to deliver.
Courtroom dramas may not be everyone’s favorite genre, but “Chicago 7” is not your average procedural. Sure, there’s a bit of legal jargon, witnesses taking the stand, the standard cross-examination. All the traditional elements are here, but where other films tend to lose steam with droning opening statements or difficult to follow analysis, Sorkin’s writing simplifies and heightens everything all at the same time.
It’s no secret Sorkin is a master of dialogue, and those skills are on full display here. From the wisecracks to the legal statements, everything here is said with power and purpose, which makes every scene in this film absolutely electrifying. Even scenes that solely consist of two characters chatting feel as thrilling as any blockbuster action sequence because the intention behind the words is so compelling. This elevated dialogue and script lends itself to tremendous pacing, and at two hours and nine minutes, the film flies by and never drags in the slightest.
Sorkin’s scripting is enhanced even further by the ridiculously talented cast assembled by casting directors Mickie Paskal and Jennifer Rudnicke. Each player works together seamlessly, whether they’re a duo like Cohen and Strong, or at each others’ throats like Cohen and Redmayne. This versatility from Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman as both a laid back stoner and a revolutionary genius allows Cohen to stand out as the most impressive actor in a film full of them.
Strong’s Jerry Rubin is right there with him though, playing Cohen’s often dumbfounded sidekick with a truly wonderful Bullwinkle-esque accent. Strong consistently delivers laugh-out-loud moments and much needed comic relief in a story that’s oftentimes very disheartening.
While Abdul-Mateen’s Bobby Seale is not featured as heavily as the other cast members, the actor certainly makes the most of the moments he is onscreen. Anyone who is familiar with the case knows that Seale was unfairly dragged into the case in an attempt to take down the Black Panther leader, and Abdul-Mateen’s passionate outbursts seem to fully express the anger and frustration his character was feeling.
Another way Sorkin ensures his film will stand out is through his storytelling methods. From the very start, the film jumps from character to character ahead of the Convention to introduce them, before settling in to the trial a year later. Throughout the film, as it revisits the events in Chicago, Sorkin splices together different characters’ accounts and perspectives on everything that went down to provide an intriguing and all-encompassing look at the events. The choice to set the based around the trial and reflect back on the previous events as they are raised in the court works extremely well and prevents audiences from mixing up people, places or protests.
Each year, it feels like the perfect storm must come together in order for a film to take home the top prize at the Academy Awards. Movies must meet the perfect balance of prestige filmmaking, social and cultural relevance, a revered cast and crew, Academy appeal and so many other specific elements.
After a summer of social unrest and with a divisive presidential election looming, Sorkin’s latest masterpiece could not have arrived at a more instrumental time. Plus, with the coronavirus pandemic still in full swing, the decision to distribute the film through Netflix looks both wise and considerate, and will undoubtedly boost viewership and buzz. Both of those factors, coupled with the legendary talent of Aaron Sorkin and the charm of this cast, and it looks like the winds could be picking up early in favor of “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.