Aaron Sorkin follows up his directorial debut MOLLY'S GAME with a movie whose subject is far more in his wheelhouse, and what an energetic, pointed, anger-making film he has created in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Its concerns are those that Sorkin has explored throughout his career: the liberal fight against injustice, corruption and political repression. He cast these ideas in a warm-fuzzy light where optimism won in his hit TV show The West Wing. He was angrier and more cynical in The Newsroom. And in the Trump era, the anger is rightly turned up, and the absurdity of a system wherein the rule of law has been bent out of all recognition fully explored.
The film opens with a montage that takes us back to the 1960s and the potent combination of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests. We see RFK beg for calm after the assassination of MLK before himself being assassinated. We then zoom in to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Protestors flooded into the City hoping to protest Vietnam in front of the media outside the convention hotel soon clashed with the police brutally trying to keep them away. Once Nixon is elected his regime decides to prosecute the so-called ringleaders of the riots for Conspiracy to Incite Riots and other charges, even throwing in iconic Black Panther Bobby Seale, who had no part of it, for good measure. The charges were clearly trumped up, the judge (Frank Langella) was clearly biased and bogus, the jury was tampered with to ensure a friendly verdict, and the defendants were clearly there just to be made an example of.
Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely note perfect as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. He gets all the funniest lines because he is most comfortable with showing the absurdity of proceedings. But it's Eddie Redmayne that has the more interesting role as Tom Hayden - the apparently more sensible, less showy leader of a student protest movement who hates Hoffman's grandstanding. Much of the intellectual back and forth of the movie comes between them as they throw barbs about how best to serve the movement. And they are joined in a kind of Sorkin Triumvirate of Repartee by Mark Rylance as progressive attorney William Kunstler. It's so clear that the prosecution is bent (despite an ill-conceived attempt to soften Joseph Gordon-Levitt's prosecution attorney) that all the real intellectual fun is to be had in the arguments WITHIN the defense.
The result is a courtroom drama that is thrilling and rightly anger-making, and a movie where Sorkin's trademark razor-sharp combative dialogue is absolutely right for the job. But he has also come on leaps and bounds as a director of action. The way in which he reconstructs the riot as he interrogates the version of events that Tom Hayden is telling himself is a visual and editorial tour-de-force.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 has been released on Netflix due to Covid. It has a running time of 127 minutes and is rated R.