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Netflix Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

October 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Aaron Sorkin has a way with words and a real knack for writing film dialogue, as we already saw, or rather heard, in his scripts for David Fincher’s brilliant Facebook drama The Social Network and Danny Boyle’s structurally inventive biopic Steve Jobs.

Sorkin’s gift for writing memorable, rapid fire dialogue exchanges makes him a natural fit for courtroom dramas, which is the genre that he tackled in the 1992 classic A Few Good Men, and tackles again in his latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film, which is dropping on Netflix today, marks Sorkin’s second effort as director as well as screenwriter following his 2017 directorial debut Molly’s Game, and it’s compelling to watch.

The film dramatizes the lengthy trial that began in 1969, when a group of political activists were indicted for their involvement in the protests against the Vietnam War that erupted in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The title group of seven includes anti-war activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), co-founder of the group Students for a Democratic Society, and his colleague Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the anarchic “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), both members of the Youth International Party; the peaceful conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); as well as the young activists Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a member of the Black Panther Party, is also put on trial, despite not being involved in the organization of the protests.

The seven are represented by eccentric lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance), while Seale is denied legal counsel, as his lawyer is out of town. The prosecutors on the case are Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. Mackenzie), both selected by the just elected Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman), and the judge is Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who makes little secret of his contempt for the defendants and keeps getting names wrong. The charges include conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.

Sorkin does a very good job of honing in on key moments from this widely publicized trial, which stretched on for several months, and distilling them into a compelling portrait of the court hearings and the events surrounding them. The protests themselves are shown in flashbacks during the courtroom scenes, which not only provides direct context to what is being discussed on the stand, but also allows for dramatic revelations along the way as we see exactly what led to the trial.

Rather than presenting these events in a straight-forward fashion; i.e., showing the riots first followed by the trial, this non-linear approach keeps the film moving at a snappier pace and allows Sorkin to parse out information in a way that holds our interest and builds suspense. The protests themselves have been thrillingly recreated, showing the violent clashes that erupted between protestors and law enforcement near the site of the Convention, with flashes of archival footage mixed in alongside the reenactments.

In addition to being tightly scripted, the film is also extremely well edited by Alan Baumgarten, who often cuts to the dialogue and finds a rhythm that matches Sorkin’s writing. This is perhaps most evident in the film’s whirlwind opening sequence where we are introduced to all of the main players, with scenes cutting in the middle of dialogue so that different actors can literally finish each other’s sentences. It’s also worth noting that, at just over two hours long, the film is paced exceptionally well.

The trial itself is rich with dramatic conflict, as Sorkin highlights the clashes between the straight-laced Hayden and the seemingly attention-hungry Hoffman, who keeps disrupting the proceedings with his sarcastic interjections and wild antics, racking up contempt of court charges. The film is extremely well acted by its entire ensemble cast, with the actors doing an across the board great job of finding the cadences of Sorkin’s words.

Cohen is a natural fit for the role of Hoffman, a professional troublemaker whose brand of political activism put a heavy emphasis on disruption, and Strong disappears into the role of Rubin, who is stoned for much of the film. Michael Keaton rounds out the cast in a brief but scene-stealing role as former attorney general Ramsey Clark, who had already decided not to indict the protestors under President Johnson’s administration prior to the 1968 election. This all adds up to a film that is not only dramatically powerful, but also extremely entertaining, taking the politically charged events of the late 1960s and making them resonate in today’s landscape.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix, and is also currently playing in select theatres where open.

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