The Trial of the Chicago 7, the newest film from writer-director Aaron Sorkin, is one of the best pictures to grace the screen in 2020.
Paramount knew they had an awards contender on their hands. With theaters closed and a pandemic also raging, the best decision was to unload the film on Netflix. Many months from now, this will prove to have been a key decision. Listen, people are not going back to theaters in pre-pandemic numbers and probably won’t until 2022. Netflix has the largest subscriber base and this film proves to be especially timely in light of a looming election.
The opening montage helps set the tone for late August 1968. The tumultuous year for American politics saw deaths of two leaders in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Sr. Lest we forget the Vietnam War. Flash forward 51 years and there are still racial protests all across the country. This especially makes the film’s urgency feel even more important especially with an unlikable president.
Look at where we are now. Americans are protesting against systemic racism. We have a president that forced his way through peaceful protests in June for a photo op in front of a church. Some things just do not change. We can learn from this film and our own history.
All eyes were on Chicago in August 1968 with the city playing host to the Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) were among the organizers of an anti-war protest at Grant Park. Those charged represented organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), The Youth International 7 Party (Yippies), The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (The MOBE), and the Black Panthers.
It was inevitable that the protesters would clash with the Chicago Police and National Guard. But it didn’t have to be this way. What could have been a peaceful protest turned into a riot when Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) was clubbed in the head. And thus, the Chicago Riots of 1968 were born.
William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) has his work cut out for him in the courtroom. It’s clearly an uphill battle arguing for his clients in front of a judge that would rather see them in prison. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) doesn’t hesitate to place the defendants or attorneys in contempt.
Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) appears as a witness to make some of the film’s most crucial comments. The prosecution certainly is no fan of his appearance and ultimately, the jury doesn’t get to hear what he says. Investigations by the LBJ Department of Justice found that the Chicago Police were responsible for the riots. Once Nixon took office and named John Mitchell (William Hurt) as Attorney General, they went forward with criminal charges. The rest is history.
It’ll be interesting to see how Netflix opts to campaign this film in terms of acting performances. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is superb in his portrayal of Bobby Seale. In the film’s early portions, you’d have thought he was there for comic relief but as the film gets deeper into the run time, the racism is very clear. What can I say about Frank Langella? He is superb as the unlikeable judge, Julius Hoffman. There are so many stand-out performances here that I’ll be ruminating on them for a while.
The trial itself stretched north of 150 days. Aside from references to Allen Ginsberg, none of the celebrities appear that took the witness stand are in the film. Sorkin has enough material to draw from to where it would only be fan service. The filmmaker certainly did his research. This doesn’t need to be a paint-by-the-numbers story that you can get on Wikipedia. Sorkin cuts to the brunt of the story since this film is so timely. Obviously, the courtroom drama makes for the meat of the film but Sorkin is able to pick up on the drama between Hayden and Hoffman. The two minds were cut from a different cloth but went into Chicago with similar goals.
Daniel Pemberton’s film score will almost certainly contend for awards. His work here is especially key in a number of set pieces. A contemporary protest song, “Hear My Voice,” will certainly get some attention. Celeste provides the vocals for the end credits tune.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has been in the works for over a decade. Originally, Steven Spielberg was set to direct from Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. Spielberg dropped out due to the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild strike and concerns over the budget. It’s interesting to wonder what a Spielberg film would have looked like. One thing for sure is that Sacha Baron Cohen was always going to portray Abbie Hoffman. As a result, Sorkin ends up directing his second feature film. It’s a much better film than Molly’s Game. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, coming off of Ford V Ferrari, gloriously photographs this picture. Film editor Alan Baumgarten is able keep the film’s two hour and change run time move at a quick place. He even weaves in footage from Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.
This is a film that’s shot in both Chicago and New Jersey. While the interiors are almost certainly shot in New Jersey, all of the park footage features both Lincoln and Grant Park. If you’re wondering, that’s the John Logan statue appearing prominently in the Grant Park scenes.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a new masterpiece from Aaron Sorkin. We’ll be talking about it during a very long awards season.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Aaron Sorkin
CAST: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, John Doman, J.C. Mackenzie