MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Daniel Flaherty, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Robbins, Alex Sharp, Kelvin Harrison Jr., J. C. MacKenzie, Ben Shenkman, Max Adler, John Doman/ Runtime: 129 minutes
Ok so I feel I should start this review off by letting you know dear reader that this film is a top-notch courtroom drama that has been scribed and helmed by none other than…Aaron Sorkin (gasp ooohhh ahhhh). I mean c’mon movie goers do I really have to write anything else in this review in order to persuade you to at the very least give the newest Netflix release The Trial of the Chicago 7 a try? I mean yeah I suppose I could go on and on until I was blue in the face about how sharp and slick the dialogue Sorkin gives his cast to play with remains as electrifying as ever, how his casting choices are truly just as engaging and masterful as ever (especially when it came to Sacha Baron Cohen as hippie warrior Borat ehh Abbie Hoffman), and also how his incredible talent for connecting moments in history with the world around us today still remains as remarkable and phenomenal as ever. Yet, if anything, the biggest reason that you should view The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie goer is because this film is what has manages to inspire celebrated writer Aaron Sorkin to make a glorious return to the world of entertainment magic known as the political-legal drama where he, in the past, has triumphed magnificently with such noteworthy entries as the celebrated TV show The West Wing, 1995’s The American President, 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War and one of his most iconic works the 1992 Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson military drama A Few Good Men. However with this film which retells for us the complete and utter circus of justice that was the prosecution of the Chicago 7 (plus the head of the Black Panther movement at that particular time in U.S. History Bobby Seale), Sorkin also manages to make the quite pointed statement about where we as people are divided in the here and now as well. Suffice it to say therefore that this is smooth and extremely well-constructed cinematic fare that not only engages you, but should also educate and quite possibly infuriate you as well. Yet again however this is not exactly revelatory seeing as this is Aaron Sorkin we’re talking about which means going into this you know you are going to get a riveting narrative that retells for us a crucial moment in time, but from several distinct perspectives. Ultimately however, it should still be noted that is both an integral as well as powerfully constructed and acted slice of cinematic pie that is truly engaging not just for what it is showing us about an event that happened awhile back, but for maybe showing us just where we are today as well and that in and out of itself is perhaps the most powerful thing of all.
The plot is as follows: The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes us all the way back to the long-gone year known as 1968 as we see that, in the aftermath of the tragic assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy and with the end of Johnson’s time in office as President at an end, a smattering of 8 leaders from various activist groups all decided to come together in the city of Chicago during the time leading up to the Democratic National Convention which the city was hosting in order to have the opportunity to get their various points of view, most dealing with getting out of the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, out into the masses. However, following a group of skirmishes which saw local cops getting entangled with the protestors that these men brought with them, these leaders found themselves being detained and charged with inciting riots. Yet as these men along with the legal eagles helping them defend their position would soon learn, their opposition wasn’t just the pair of prosecuting attorneys on the other side of the aisle nor the cold and brutal judge with a clear bias against them. Rather it was the fact that, in the eyes of a government who was hell bent on continuing a conflict that the vast majority of Americans had come to disapprove of to some degree or another these men were no more and no less than enemies of the state despite the fact that they were simply tired of seeing people be sent over to another country and used as fodder against an enemy that even the U.S. government could not pretend to understand….
Now right off the bat helmer/scribe Sorkin does deserve praise for making sure we know all the key players in this particular case and just why they wound up in this particular courtroom. Indeed we see that a pair of yippie anarchists by the names of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were there because they took great pride and pleasure in ticking off the powers that be in DC, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) were there because whilst they too also believed quite passionately in the belief system of the anti-war movement they also felt that Hoffman’s demeanor and attitude was ultimately doing more damage than positives for the cause that they were unified in, Dellinger (John Carol Lynch) has always felt that protesting for what one believed in was often the best way to be heard in a world that sometimes seems deadset on ignoring you simply because it can, and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is just both befuddled and downright resentful of even being in the courtroom in the first place since he feels, and rightfully so, that he is only there because the prosecution wants to go after the Black Panthers as well and what better way than to tie him in with these “dangerous radical activists”?. On top of all that we also have a pair of lawyers for the defense by the names of William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) who are representing these men because they believe that this was a peaceful protest until the Chicago police got involved and a lawyer by the name Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on the prosecution who is involved in what is the biggest case of his career, but who over the course of the trial comes to at least respect these men as men and that’s just the lawyers and clients at the heart of the story!. Suffice it to say then that you might need a chart of some kind to help you remember who everyone is until the film finds its niche. Yet ultimately this is not as much of an issue as you might think since the energy Sorkin is able to generate through his script is able to propel you forward until you are able to comprehend the main idea while rewatching this film will give you the chance to really dig in and discover the nuance on display for those of you with a keen interest in history, politics, or both.
Now it should come as no surprise to learn that whenever the world of Hollywood hears that Aaron Sorkin has written something new and it’s going to become either a TV show or a film, he really has no trouble getting the top talent to want to be a part of whatever he has come up with. I mean we have seen everyone from Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and all the way to the dynamite and quite explosively powerful pairing that is Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson all getting the chance to show why they aren’t just in-name only acting icons when they have all taken on the challenge of engaging in work that was put to paper by this iconic scribe. To that end, it should be noted that whilst the cast of this particular Aaron Sorkin outing isn’t overflowing with what could be considered to be names that will immediately be familiar to you. Yet it should still be noted that the thespians that have been chosen for this film manage to, no matter the size or scope of their respective roles, bring the energy and magnetism required of the material and then some. Indeed, as to be expected given their personalities, we get wonderfully fast and loose work from both Cohen (who is actually magnetic in this) and Strong and more reserved yet wonderful in its own way work from Redmayne, on loan from the Fantastic Beasts franchise for a little while. Yet it should be noted that every single performance in this is crucial to the film’s narrative especially when it comes to the arc of Bobby Seale brilliantly portrayed here by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and whose dilemma in this film starts off bad due to having no legal representation to help keep at bay the bullheaded and downright biased Judge Julius Hoffman (an infuriating and ice-cold in all the best ways Frank Langella) and from there it just keeps building and building until it all comes to a head in a way that will you leave both in shock that this actually happened and furious that it did. Finally we also get magnetic work from both sides of the aisle courtesy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance as the prosecution and defense respectively who both manage to do a wonderful job not only representing their sides with dignity, but also in showcasing that they are capable of also being a human being when the situation calls for it especially Levitt who, despite opposing these men and what they represent, does, after everything that happens during the events of this film, come at least a little bit towards understanding just where their rancor and hostility of the system comes from. Ultimately whenever you watch something that Aaron Sorkin has written you should know that everyone involved is going to bring their very best to that project and this film is most certainly no exception.
Now with all of that being said I do feel you should know movie goer that I do have what could be interpreted as one miniscule point of possible contention against what is otherwise a wonderfully made and acted slice of cinematic pie. This possible, keyword there, point of contention would have to revolve around the fact that Sorkin decided to helm his own absolutely brilliant screenplay. I mean don’t get me wrong: Sorkin as a film helmer is most definitely making leaps and strides as both Molly’s Game and this film are both genuinely great films in my opinion though I do still wait with abated breath to see just where he might be as a helmer in say 10 years or so. Plus his work on this film is terrific, the overall look of the film is stylish to a hilt though it most certainly does not deter in any way from the message that Sorkin the script writer is trying to convey. It’s just that, much in the same vein as the writings of Sorkin the scribe tend to really draw in some of the finest thespians to come and play in the classy sandboxes he creates, I also feel there is something genuinely electrifying about what happens when a truly iconic film helmer takes on the reigns and brings their own unique ways of doing things to this truly brilliant material. I mean only David Fincher could’ve brought that masterful vibe of ice-cold arrogance to the 2010 masterpiece that is The Social Network and only Danny Boyle could have brought the differing ratios and film stocks to play when he tackled Sorkin’s brilliant, but criminally underseen 2015 take on the life and legacy of one Steve Jobs to name, but a couple examples. Indeed would a different film helmer have been able to take the masterclass script for this film and make it a film that is just as good as this if not potentially better. I would have to say yes though not due to any doubt on the part of Sorkin the helmer to bring so vividly to life the material that Sorkin the scribe puts down to paper. Rather because of the previous master film helmers that Sorkin has worked with and the knowledge that his work tends to bring out the very best of every single person involved.
All in all however that is merely a minor issue in the grand scheme of things especially where this film is concerned. I say that because The Trial of the Chicago 7 really truly at the end of the day is something special to come out especially now in the world of movie magic. I say that because even though the groups of people known primarily as the baby boomer and the Gen-X respectively might choose to sit down and watch this film and immediately be overwhelmed by a tidal wave that is made up of equal parts nostalgia, regret, and maybe even a hint of sadness or longing for those now long-gone days, I still find myself pondering just what exactly the activists in my generation should they choose to sit down and watch this film with their parents, grandparents, or by themselves are going to think when they witness this quite timely and relevant showcase of widespread dissatisfaction, criticism of higher institutions, factions being formed even in the most iron-clad of causes, and victories of a precarious yet moral nature. Ultimately though the key take away from a film like this is that when these events occurred, the world may have been watching, but today we are scrolling and seeing these events live rather than hearing about them secondhand or hoping the courtroom allows television news cameras to go live during trial. Suffice it to say then that film helmer/scribe Aaron Sorkin is most certainly smart enough to know than to try and compare the era this film takes place in and the present day to say nothing about the respective movements going on in those periods. Rather he quite brilliantly and ingeniously chooses to leave it up to you movie goer to figure it out for yourself. Not only in regards to just where we are and where we have gone as a country mind you, but also in respect to just how much farther we still have before what is true and right for one is true and right for all. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Trial of the Chicago 7 a solid 4 out of 5.