Premise: What was intended to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into a violent clash with police and the National Guard. The organizers of the protest—including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale—were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot and the trial that followed was one of the most notorious in history.
Kicking off this crazy and horrid year’s awards season offerings is writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s solid historical courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7. In telling the story of the notorious trial following riots that broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Sorkin holds a mirror to our country’s continuing fight for social justice while keeping his camera focused on the historical struggle he’s depicting. Chicago 7 has a lot to say and is a confident entry in Sorkin’s still young directorial career. However, while it is a marked improvement over his directorial debut Molly’s Game, Sorkin seems to still be finding his footing behind the camera.
The film spends more time on the courtroom spectacle than on the characters themselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the trial is the film’s most entertaining and engaging aspect. The courtroom defiance of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman, in particular, showcases Sorkin’s strength at quick paced comedy that doesn’t undercut the drama of the story he’s telling. Frank Langella’s performance as Judge Hoffman stands out as he portrays the judge as clearly unstable and prejudiced, presenting a clear and seemingly immovable obstruction to the 7’s hopes for freedom.
As with Molly’s Game in 2017, Chicago 7 seems to rely less on Sorkin’s breathless “Sorkinese” dialogue and more on the film’s visual storytelling. Sorkin chooses to hold back on showing the riots until the trial is well underway. Showing flashbacks intercut with testimony while also incorporating presumably real black and white footage of the riots runs the risk of sensory overload when it suddenly occurs about halfway through the movie. Fortunately, it’s a narrative gamble that pays off well as the frenetic stylistic choices help underline the importance of the 7’s movement and beliefs.
But there lies the recurring issue with Sorkin, unfortunately. In classic Sorkin fashion, the characters are predominantly defined by their ideologies. For the most part, this works well enough, given the importance of the subject. But it’s bothersome that the few scant blips of individual character development are mostly played for laughs or broad entertainment purposes rather than adding emotional depth to the story. This wouldn’t be a problem if the film was fully committed to making the Chicago 7’s “political trial” the collective source of drama. However, the dramatic beats of the story lead the film to rely on the conflicting positions of two characters late in the game. Sorkin doesn’t dedicate enough time toward setting up these characters’ conflicting approaches to their revolution. Yet the dramatic arc of the film relies on reconciling a rift between them that comes a little out of left field. Had Sorkin’s script prioritized this conflict throughout it, it would have given some third act moments much more dramatic weight and provided a more cathartic resolution to certain arcs.
The ensemble cast in Chicago 7 is simply electric and sure to garner plenty of awards attention. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Tom Hayden is a perfect depiction of a young political activist who’s deeply entrenched in his political beliefs as they relate to the conventional political structure. He and the always excellent John Carroll Lynch (who plays David Dellinger) are similar in that “not so radical” political revolutionaries way whereas Cohen’s Abbie and Jeremy Strong’s Jerry Rubin are the more free love hippies of the movement. The contrast between the behaviors of these two pairs of characters in the courtroom gives Chicago 7 its biggest moments of sheer entertainment. But the individual characterizations of the players still get a little lost in the shuffle.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s role as Bobby Seale gives the film a moral center and a lightning rod with which to stoke Judge Hoffman’s prejudices and arrogance. Seale is shown in court without representation due to his lawyer needing emergency gallbladder surgery. When Hoffman tries to pawn him off onto the counsel representing the Chicago 7, Seale begins his own fight for his constitutional right for legal representation.
Abdul-Mateen is phenomenal in the role. There’s a moment where Seale does a complete 180 in emotion as he explodes in frustration in the courtroom. It’s one of many examples of Abdul-Mateen electrifying the scene. It’s far too disappointing that his subplot acts to fortify the Chicago 7 against the judge, rather than give Seale a complete arc. Ultimately, it feels like Bobby Seale’s story is a bit player in the grander story of the trial of the Chicago 7. Within the context of the film, the trial does overshadow Seale’s story and that of the Black Panthers. Still, the film leaves Seale and Abdul-Mateen’s terrific performance slightly by the wayside.
It remains to be seen what kind of awards season we find ourselves heading into in a year filled with insanity and tragedy. Who’s to say what the awards landscape will look like in the coming weeks? As a kick-off to the time of year where awards bait and prestige films release in droves, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a very solid and entertaining offering. Sorkin shows a lot of growth as a director and, despite some lacking characterization and other issues, still manages to deliver a crowd pleaser courtroom drama that also holds the mirror up to modern day fights for justice.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 premieres October 16 on Netflix.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.