Aaron Sorkin testifies for civil rights and counterculture for his second stint in the director’s chair. And the verdict? The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far superior to Molly’s Game – Sorken’s first – and, further still, bests all other courtroom dramas of recent years. A lightning sharp blend of on point acting, pitch perfect choreography and simply superb writing hook from the very first shot and very nearly hold their grip till the last. Indeed, bar only a misjudged epilogue, Sorken’s Trial is a triumph.
It helps, of course, that both story and the politically charged epoch in which it is set play to Sorken’s strengths. See also: The Social Network and A Few Good Men. Here, it’s more than just the personal that’s political, while a late sixties courtroom gifts ample time and opportunity for the writer’s trademark fast paced exchanges and dynamite dialogue. It’s all fantastically quotable and dripping in wit, verve and impact. Very little in the film is any less than lean. There’s little room for concerns of interpersonal relationships but that’s all that’s missing. Besides, it’s not as though emotions don’t run high enough.
We open to archive footage of a heightened 1968. Under the stewardship of President Lyndon B Johnson, more and more young men are being shipped Vietnam. Lambs to the slaughterhouse. In the first example of Sorken’s virulent use of farce to underline tragedy, the sequence highlights the cruelty of a system that often used birth days to determine whom would be drafted next. It’s a flashy, enthralling juxtaposition that alongside this introduces not seven but eight soon to be defendants. Each seeks an end to the war in Vietnam. Each is brought to life by a star on terrific form.
Eddie Redmayne is the stolid, worthy and infuriating Tom Hayden, leader of the idealistic Students for a Democratic Society. Alex Sharp is his community organiser Rennie Davis. They have very worthy faith in the power of a good old fashioned protests. Laughing in the face of this, Jeremy Strong and a career best Sacha Baron Cohen play founding members of the Youth International Party – Yippies – Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Their pilgrimage to the Windy City seems to be as much about pleasure seeking as ending the war. John Carroll Lynch is David Dellinger, a generation older but no less fervent, while Daniel Flaherty and Noah Robbins roll along for the ride as John Froines and Lee Weiner. It’s hard to quite make out why they’re there but, as the latter notes: ‘This is the academy awards of protests and as far as I’m concerned it’s an honour just to be nominated.’
Eighth of the seven is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s justifiably outraged Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party. He’s there to make the other seven look ‘scarier’ and, having spent a pithy four hours in Chicago, suffers most of all. When his lawyer winds up on hospital, the prejudicial hostility of Frank Langella’s despotic Judge Hoffman sees Seale left unrepresented in a trial rigged against him. It is the film’s most remarkable and horrific sequence that sees Seale beaten, gagged and bound before the jury on the basis of speaking out of turn.
Whilst much of the actual trial hinged on farce – and is comically dramatised here – Sorkin is wise to play up the contrast. In realty, Seale’s binding was weak and permitted him repeatedly to wriggle free. Not so here. As in all good dramatisation, poetic licence has great power here to heighten both the passions of the day and intrinsic relevance to the present. Sorkin reshaped his film, which first entered development thirteen years ago, following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. It shows and it hurts. If it inspires audiences unfamiliar with the case to learn more, it works.
Beyond the masterclass in writing and performative verve, The Trial of the Chicago 7 offers too a blueprint for the power of astute editing. Venom’s Alan Baumgarten weaves Sorkin’s blend of reportage, recreation and reminiscence to dazzling effect. All is choreographed to affect and affect it does. Pared with an ebb and flow score from Yesterday’s Daniel Pemberton – another Brit in a production chockablock with them – the approach is inescapably stirring. Add Trumpian themes of corruption and conspiracy and things suddenly begin to feel a great deal more present. It’s just a shame the final bow is quite so soapy.