“The Trial of the Chicago 7” review by Nate Blake

New to Netflix today, we have writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a retelling of the court case involving a group of seven anti-Vietnam War protestors who were charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Chicago 7 include Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Early on, the seven are tried alongside Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a member of the Black Panthers who was only in Chicago for four hours on the day of the riots. The 7 are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), who faces off against a prosecution team led by Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

I am a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work and if I had to name my most anticipated film of the year, even before coronavirus caused a bunch of titles to be moved to 2021, I would have said The Trial of the Chicago 7. I’m glad to say it exceeded my expectations. Aaron Sorkin, as a director, has come a long way since the well-written and acted but only adequately helmed Molly’s Game. In terms of his writing, I also observed a change in his typical style this time around. Known for rapid fire dialogue in TV shows such as The West Wing and The Newsroom and populating films like The Social Network with characters who always have a snappy comeback, Sorkin’s latest script allows the characters a little more time to breathe. The dialogue still crackles with zingers and exchanges that burst out of the television speakers like machine gun fire, but I was surprised by just how many exchanges were brief, and loaded with effective pauses. So while many of Sorkin’s trademarks are present, if you’re someone who doesn’t typically care for his style, you might like this more than you’d expect and should give it a chance.

I also liked how, despite the title, Sorkin did not gloss over Bobby Seale’s story. In fact, the treatment he receives from Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) culminates into one of the film’s most impactful moments. Sorkin has previously offered critiques of technology, conservatism, and even sports management. While those previous efforts have made me think, none made me as angry as I felt while watching this film. It’s a stirring, two-hour call to action.

The acting will be talked about for years and is mesmerizing in every frame. There is still a long way to go in what will be a most unusual awards season, but this one is going to be hard to beat for the SAG acting ensemble. It’s difficult to even single out a best performance in a cast this good, though Sacha Baron Cohen delivers career best work and I also have never been more impressed by Eddie Redmayne (yes, I saw The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl).

Sorkin reportedly began writing this script in 2007, but the final draft has arrived on our screens at the most fitting possible moment. This trial from five decades ago couldn’t be more relevant than it is now, after we’ve spent an entire summer watching peaceful protestors harassed, tear gassed and beaten by police. Judge Julius Hoffman, though a real person, could also be an accurate composite of the judges Trump and Republicans have been appointing the past four years.

From a technical standpoint, I admired the film’s editing. Sorkin’s visual style owes much to Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon epics, and it works well. Composer Daniel Pemberton, in his second collaboration with Sorkin (as director), provides a score that is equal parts heartfelt and unsettling.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a film I will watch repeatedly, including a few times before the end of the year. It’s a history lesson that is absolutely essential to revisit in our current moment. I highly recommend watching this one and please give it your full attention. Treat it like you would a trip to the cinema. Turn out all the lights in your living room, turn off your phone and grab your favorite snack. The first masterpiece of fall 2020 has arrived. I hope to see many more soon.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming now on Netflix. It is rated R for Drug Use, Bloody Images, Language Throughout and Some Violence.

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