The courtroom drama has been a staple of American cinema and television for some time now. There are many different legal avenues to pursue in these stories but, considering the level of civil unrest we’ve seen in 2020, there are a number of parallels to be drawn in this particular instance. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a good movie with some fantastic performances, but it falls shy of greatness thanks to its unabashed adherence to the courtroom drama playbook.
Based on a true story, a group of protest leaders goes on trial for inciting a night of rioting in Chicago when the new US Attorney General decides to pursue a personal vendetta. As the proceedings get underway, it becomes obvious that the judge is using the criminal justice system to make an example of these men in a very public and blatantly political trail.
Aaron Sorkin is a great writer but this is only the second movie where he’s sat in the director’s chair and it shows. The screenplay is as snappy and quick-hitting as you’d expect from him, but there are some odd directorial choices. During the middle of some of the most pivotal testimony of the trial, the movie just fades to black and then jumps forward in time to the end of the trial (IIRC). Maybe the runtime was getting long and that was a way to trim it down in post-production, but it was a huge blow to the momentum as it then stumbled to its unfortunately cheesy and anticlimactic finish. In fact, the ending is about as cliche as imaginable and didn’t fit with the rest of the film considering the pace and the overall tone throughout. There’s something to be said for pacing and Daniel Pemberton’s original music was instrumental in giving this movie its edge and keeping it on track, but even that took an odd turn in the film’s finale.
If you’ve seen The Social Network or A Few Good Men, you’ll recognize the tone and style of the dialogue as uniquely Sorkin. The story itself was interesting as it addressed the political and civil unrest during the Vietnam war, especially under Nixon’s presidency, but skimmed the surface of its anti-war and police brutality messaging to focus on the internal conflict within the group of the protest leaders on trial. Sorkin effectively established the system as a corrupt piece of machinery working against these men and Frank Langella is fantastically loathsome as Judge Hoffman, so utterly despicable, but the focal point largely boiled down to the differences in leadership methodology among the group.
This cast is absolutely stacked and there were a number of exceptional performances. Chief among them, Yahya Abdul Mateen II was incredible as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and you feel the full weight of the court’s discriminatory efforts in its treatment of him, especially when you consider Seale wasn’t part of the Chicago protests in the first place. It’s a shame that he really wasn’t one of the “main characters” because the movie had more powerful energy when his story had the spotlight.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong were both fantastic as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (respectively), and Oscar-winner Mark Rylance has a very unique kind of gravitas as the group’s lawyer William Kuntsler. We’re fortunate that the cast was so adept at developing and embodying their characters because it helped bring depth to the dialogue that we may not have seen without such wonderfully crafted and nuanced performances.
If it weren’t for a global shutdown, this would likely have been a fairly big theatrical release with a substantial Oscar campaign behind it. While it didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, it felt more connected to the present, more tangible, than I anticipated. Even with its shortcomings, it was still entertaining, well-performed, and I enjoyed it.
Recommendation: This is probably one of the better movies you can watch on Netflix right now and if you like courtroom dramas, you’ll most likely enjoy this movie. It hits all the familiar marks and is a fitting story for our current socio-political situation.