Netflix film review: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Written by Arthur
8/10 Rating 8/10
Aaron Sorkin’s timely political drama turns a show trial into a witty cinematic circus.
Director: Aaron Sorkin Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Rylance Certificate: 15 Watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 online in the UK: Netflix UK
The whole world is watching. Those were the words chanted in 1968, when a group of protest organisers were arrested after the protests at the Democratic National Convention. Charged with conspiracy to incite a riot, what followed was a notorious trial in which the anti-Vietnam War campaigners were made the scapegoat for a violent confrontation that was initiated by the police. More than 40 years later, police brutality, the democratic voicing of dissent and prejudice within the justice system are still urgent, relevant issues, so it’s no surprise that Netflix has snapped up the film and released it just before the 2020 US presidential election.
Aaron Sorkin, who both writes and directs, has assembled one heck of a cast to retell events. The titular “Chicago 7” comprise Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), students who want a democratic, peaceful society, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Youth International Party members who will do anything to advance their counter-cultural, anti-war movement, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a college teacher and pacifist, and supporters John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), who are mostly there so the court can pardon them and appear lenient.
They’re wheeled into court alongside an eighth figure, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Having only been in Chicago for a couple of hours, none of them spent meeting with these other seven, his civil rights are violated repeatedly as the trial progresses, dismissed by a bullying conservative judge (Frank Langella) as he is determined to see the man pay for anything that sticks – much to the dismay of left-leaning defence lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and even the junior prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
That Seale’s horrific treatment isn’t the central focus of the story is a shame but also to be expected, as Sorkin is more concerned with focusing on the bigger picture (it makes for a showier cousin to Steve McQueen’s more understated – and superior – Mangrove). That ensemble approach means that the star-studded cast all end up vying for their own moments to shine, whether that’s Rylance’s mumbling do-gooder or Gordon-Levitt’s not-a-terrible-guy-just-doing-his-job government puppet. That perfectly lends itself to Sorkin’s writing style, which parses history into witty exchanges – delivered with relish by Sacha Baron Cohen’s outspoken activist, Eddie Redmayne’s timid politician and Jeremy Strong’s scene-stealing turn as a hippy with a heart. They all convincingly capture the in-fighting that typically threatens any liberal cause.
That bickering spills over into the courtroom, and their ridiculous show trial is effectively turned into a cinematic circus by Sorkin. Backed by Daniel Pemberton’s stirring score, there’s an undeniable pleasure in the old-school courtroom drama of it all – the heavyweight speeches and grandstanding gestures are all given added weight by the setting, and Sorkin’s camera is relatively restrained, letting the words take centre stage.
If that sounds like an unsubtle, outdated piece of filmmaking (the film was first written in 2007), The Trial of the Chicago 7 is nonetheless impeccably paced and shrewdly presented, from the beautifully character-specific costume design to the bravura opening montage that introduces us all the key players at whip-smart speed. The film finds its strengths not only in Sorkin’s dialogue, but in the way he actually manages to write each character without them sounding just like him – something that’s particularly true in the case of Bobby Seale.
The result is a timely reminder that the justice system has been broken for decades, and that a democracy is only as strong as its ability to listen to public concerns and criticism. As the whole charade descends into chaos, you don’t need to listen to the crowds outside the trial shouting to hear its relevance for today.