‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ Leaves Nothing to Chance

Aaron Sorkin’s film comes out against injustice

By Todd Hill

Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch and Sacha Baron Cohen, from left, star as Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and Abbie Hoffman, respectively, in the Aaron Sorkin film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

(3 stars out of 5)

Watching a movie or series that was written by Aaron Sorkin is a lot like eating at Applebee’s.

By making that remark, I am in no way intending to insult Applebee’s (or Aaron Sorkin, for that matter). I’ve had some thoroughly decent meals at that restaurant chain over the years, sometimes after a basketball game or following a day of shopping or, I don’t know, going to a funeral. It’s a dependable, predictable place to eat, but in no way can it be said that eating at Applebee’s is anything approximating an event.

The same goes for watching a movie written by Aaron Sorkin, and that sentiment goes double for a movie that he’s written and directed, like “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” And that’s fine, it really is — ordinarily. We need run-of-the-mill movies just like we need run-of-the-mill establishments where we can order a decent burger or some fried chicken.

But when movies like this bite off more than they can reasonably be expected to chew — like, for instance, the 1969–70 trial of seven (actually eight) defendants accused of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — they run the risk of becoming at least slightly disappointing for all involved, starting with the viewer.

If “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which debuted on Netflix on Oct. 16, 2020, isn’t disappointing, exactly, it’s only because I expected nothing more from this Aaron Sorkin film than I would, say, a decent burger at Applebee’s. But I didn’t come away from the movie feeling like I learned much of anything new about this particular moment in American history. Worse, I couldn’t shake the notion — because I’ve seen Aaron Sorkin movies before — that what I did learn may have been dumbed or at least watered down for dramatic effect.

Well, you might be saying, what Hollywood movies or TV shows don’t do that? Fair point, but “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” given its oh-so-timely subject matter of police misconduct and governmental overreach — purports to be something much grander than just another episode of “Law & Order.” And it’s just not — with one exception. Actually, several.

If Sorkin dialogue makes we, the viewers, feel smart watching it being acted out, imagine how it makes the actors feel. Actors look great reading a Sorkin screenplay, and some of the best working today, not surprisingly, flocked to “Chicago 7.” Their performances are really the only reason to see — or laud — this motion picture. And frankly, that may be reason enough.

I was dismissive of Sacha Baron Cohen following the release of his first “Borat” movie in 2006 as nothing more than an annoying comic, only to gradually reach the conclusion that he’s actually a talented actor with a sharp eye for what’s going on in America today. He’s at the center of this movie, playing the yippie Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance should reside there, as defense attorney William Kuntsler, but he’s too generous. Eddie Redmayne tries hard to suppress his British-ness to portray California boy Tom Hayden, founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, and succeeds.

The real star of this show, however, is Frank Langella. The judge presiding over the trial, Julius Hoffman, was an absolute joke. He was profoundly sympathetic towards the prosecution, and it was he who was responsible for the trial immediately devolving into a circus, not showboats like Abbie Hoffman (no relation). Langella is tremendously contemptible as the judge.

Some of Sorkin’s directorial decisions are curious. The film attempts to peak emotionally at the wrong time, when the literal binding and gagging of the Black Panther Bobby Seale in the courtroom, a historically reprehensible moment, feels like it should be the natural climax of the movie.

Although some of the people on trial probably did conspire to incite a riot in Chicago in 1968, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award on March 15, 2021, comes down on the right side of history — it would be beyond shocking if it didn’t. But unfortunately, Sorkin can’t leave well enough alone, ending his film with one of the prosecuting attorneys (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing alongside the defendants in honor of those who lost their lives fighting in Vietnam (the reason for the convention protests to begin with). A chant of “the whole world is watching” is heard right before the closing credits.

Most everyone watching this film is likely to be on the side of the seven (eight, counting Seale, whose case wisely ended in a mistrial). We hardly need to be lectured to take their side.

2 hours and 10 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use. Netflix

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVb6EdKDBfU

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.