Leave it to a historical, political, and legal drama to bring out some of Aaron Sorkin’s best work. The Trial of the Chicago 7—formerly a Paramount Pictures release sold to Netflix in the wake of COVID-19—is filled with The West Wing creator’s favorite topics: progressive ideologies, the importance of democracy, the triumph of rightness, the value of good trouble—all those facets, and more, are on display as the movie reminds the audience that the “whole world is watching.” In short, Trial is about what you’d expect from an Aaron Sorkin project.
As evidenced by its namesake, Trial focuses on the titular Chicago 7—Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins)—and the U.S. federal government’s 1969 court case against them. The full list of the group’s charges included conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other offenses related to anti-Vietnam War and counterculture protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Included alongside the seven is Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) for reasons I’ll get into later. Rounding out the cast are the 7’s lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a real dirty, old bastard in Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), and opposing counsel Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
That’s a lot of setting up for a movie focused almost exclusively on the effect rather than the cause, but Sorkin wrangles the why of it all rather deftly; a crackling opening prologue quickly introduces Hoffman et al. and contextualizes their individual philosophies alongside archival footage of the tumultuous events of 1968: growing anti-Vietnam War feelings, the assassinations of both MLK and Bobby Kennedy, and the eventual protests at the DNC. Even the most half-awake of political observers will naturally draw comparisons between the social events of 1968 and 2020. Yet Sorkin being Sorkin means the subtext is text; the previously quoted “the whole world is watching” is heard as Hoffman and Rubin enter the courthouse—but certainly wouldn’t be out of place among the rallying cries heard over this last summer.
Sorkin’s tendency for self-indulgence and navel-gazing isn’t as bad in Trial as it is in, let’s say, this moment from The Newsroom, but nor is it as restrained as it was in The Social Network. The tone falls somewhere in the middle; Daniel Pemberton’s score peaks during the moments in which Sorkin wants you to understand that something is important with a capital I. Outside of those moments and a few key exchanges, Trial otherwise avoids Sorkin’s propensity to preach at viewers and explain how he—a white, male, liberal with the benefit of hindsight—would have handled the situation. Once the propulsive opening is complete, the movie turns its focus to the trial. Like The Social Network, Trial uses the testimony as a framing device to intersperse the protests’ actual events to paint a fuller picture of the whys and wherefores of it all. While his first directorial effort (2017’s Molly’s Game) didn’t feature much in the way of “action” sequences, Trial lets Sorkin tinker with massive setpieces hinged around critical moments of the protests. He executes these moments surprisingly well. It’s a part of his filmmaking I’m excited to see grow with more practice.
Historically, Sorkin's action comes from his rapid-fire, witty dialogue, and Trial doesn’t disappoint there either. A crackling, smart, and often wry script (insofar as a script about a monumental court case can be) finds a perfect match in a strongly assembled cast. The two immediate standouts are Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen; as the hippie (read: radical leftist) contingent, the duo of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman come into direct conflict with Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and his more subdued approach. Trial leverages Cohen’s comedic prowess to fully channel Hoffman’s anti-establishment prankster-vibes while also proving he’s capable of seriousness when the moment calls for it. Overall, he’s good enough to garner some serious awards consideration—especially in a less than stacked competition year. Fans of Strong know he’s a chameleon in all of his roles. He’s able to execute not only Rubin’s bohemian tendencies but also imbues the character with a profound amount of empathy. Mark Rylance, acting stalwart that he is, shows up and knocks every one of his scenes out of the park. As Tom Hayden, Redmayne feels slightly out of place. Part of it is the script; much of Hayden’s more centrist ideology causes him to be a natural foil to Rubin and Hoffman and thus a wet blanket to their progressive ideas. Redmayne sells his big monologue when the moment counts but feels slightly inert otherwise.
I have mixed feelings about Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s involvement—and most of it comes from Sorkin’s desire to stay as historically accurate as possible. Bobby Seale’s inclusion in the actual court case is notably suspect from the beginning; he’s joined to the others as a way to connect the Black Panther Party to the protests, leading to a stronger conviction for all. Historical fact constrains Sorkin’s script, resulting in a thinly-written character unworthy of the superlative Mateen—especially in the wake of his Emmy Award-winning work on Watchmen. But Mateen crushes the little he does have to do, including dramatizing one of the most heinous acts to ever happen in a U.S. courtroom. I wish Sorkin had found more space to let one of Complex’s favorites shine.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin at his most Sorkin-y—both good and bad. The movie isn’t a cinematic revolution reflective of the change many of its protagonists so deeply desire. But it is a compelling and promising continuation for the writer/director, one that leaves me eager to see how he’ll continue to grow and develop as a filmmaker. In that regard, The Trial of the Chicago 7 proves that much like America, Sorkin is still a work in progress.