The Trial of the Chicago 7, review: Aaron Sorkin supplies a barnstorming courtroom drama for the ages
Dir: Aaron Sorkin; Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty. 15 cert, 129 mins.
We already know that Aaron Sorkin can write fast dialogue, but exactly how fast can he write it? Sorkin apparently broke ground on the script for his barnstorming new courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, in 2007. But the finished film feels so uncannily attuned to the split-second present that you can imagine him sitting behind the camera with his laptop balanced on one leg and the morning papers on the other, rattling out new script pages one-handed while gripping a double espresso.
In fact, with this particular story – about the tumultuous trial of a group of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in 1969 and 1970 which became a notorious case study in judicial misconduct – Sorkin isn’t offering a contemporary spin on past events so much as playing a mesmerising game of historical join-the-dots, linking events large and small in an Illinois court 50 years ago with the current convulsions of America’s democratic apparatus.
The question Sorkin asks is: when the state baits and demonises its own citizens – painting all legitimate dissent as a treacherous plot – what recourse do those citizens have?
This is Sorkin’s second film as both writer and director (his first was the 2017 poker thriller Molly’s Game), though he’s still best-known as the creator of The West Wing and for his stylish, motor-mouthing screenplays for films such as A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The Social Network.
His own directorial style arguably owes as much to hyper-verbal screwball classics such as His Girl Friday as his writing does: The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t offer us a dutiful period recreation, so much as a luxuriously old-fashioned movie-isation of it. Every individual on screen is the sharpest, most charismatic and flatteringly lit version of themselves imaginable, and their company quickly proves addictive. Many viewers will already find themselves hooked by the end of the virtuoso seven-minute prologue, which introduces the defendants in a flurry of dovetailing walk-and-talks that wittily draws attention to just how little they have in common, save their opposition to the Vietnam conflict.
The seven are a motley bunch, which makes the central charge of criminal conspiracy seem all the more spurious. Two, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davies (Alex Sharp), are student activists; two more, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), are shaggy-haired counterculture provocateurs. One, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), is a mild-mannered conscientious objector; while numbers six and seven, John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), are essentially fringe figures.
On day one of the trial, an eighth defendant joins their ranks. He is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and his relevance to the proceedings is not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, Judge Julius Hoffman (a splendidly cantankerous Frank Langella) is determined not just to see him stand trial with the others, but to press-gang the seven’s lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) into representing him too. (On the other side of the court is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the state’s idealistic young prosecutor, Richard Schultz.)
In other words, there are a lot of faces and personalities to juggle here, yet Sorkin and his cast keep them all aloft with riveting panache.
It helps that each character has a tightly circumscribed remit – and also that their dress and personalities tend to be in perfect accord. (Rylance’s performance as Kunstler is a masterclass in dishevelled integrity.) Baron Cohen’s Hoffman is the main source of comic relief, yet he serves a serious function too, as he clashes with Redmayne’s Hayden over the value of protest: for Hoffman it’s a statement; for Hayden, a tactic.
Meanwhile, Langella’s judge’s nonchalant contempt for the defendants is genuinely enraging, and his escalating squabbles with Rylance and sadistic baiting of Abdul-Maheen provide nitro-boosts of pure drama.
“The whole world is watching” – a slogan chanted by crowds outside the court – is not a thought that seems to trouble Judge Julius all that much, but surely with one eye trained on our current explosive historical moment, it gradually becomes the film’s own cri de coeur. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is both a courtroom drama for the ages and an urgent shot across the bows.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 will be released in UK cinemas on Oct 2 and will be available to stream on Netflix on Oct 16