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  • Sheldon Gaskell

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Rated: R

(violence, mature themes, language, drug use)

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Shenkman, Frank Langella, J.C. MacKenzie, Michael Keaton

Streaming on Netflix

Aaron Sorkin's second directorial achievement The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) bristles with the same heart-pounding fervor and political complexity of courtroom dramas like 12 Angry Men (1957) and A Few Good Men (1992), while inspiring viewers to seek personal courage through difficult times. The setting is 1968-69 Chicago--mostly the courtroom interspaced with brilliantly edited flashbacks to Grant Park anti-war rallies, street skirmishes, and university auditorium stand-up routines--surrounding the events of the infamous Vietnam War protests that ignited the nation. Eight men (eventually seven men after one is granted a mistrial after a scene of mouth-dropping cruelty) are on trial for their separate, though often intersecting, roles in leading the protests and allegedly inciting the riots against the Chicago police. I am always skeptical of the courtroom drama archetype as I find its intimate tension and constricted setting to be more appropriate for the theatric stage; however, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) surprised me in its engaging film editing, impressionable acting, socially-conscious screenplay, and masterful awareness of character and time.

Like in A Few Good Men (1992), Sorkin's screenplay once again shines here in its succinct narrative structure, social awareness of present day circumstances, character complexity, and tightly crafted dialogue. Viewers are treated to an array of characters with deep, human flaws and inspirational heroic merits: the intellectually-driven morality of Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne), the beatnik banter and slick-tongued wit of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), the quiet thoughtfulness of Rennie Davis ((Alex Sharp), the drug-induced hippy ferocity of Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the stubborn and courageous family-man David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the understandably defiant Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the incompetent yet supremely confident Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the fiery lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), and more. Rarely is a film able to deliver so many stellar supporting performances so seamlessly and impactfully. The characters are believable with relatable motivations, and the film confidently weaves character experiences into a tapestry of counter-cultural heroism vs. bureaucratic oppression. The script is careful to scaffold its liberal tendencies with layers of self-critique and acknowledgment of good intentions on all sides. Take Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the prosecutor in the case against the "Chicago 7." The film does not paint him as a monster of the State but rather an ingenious lawyer and good man who values the anti-war cause and civil "law and order" simultaneously. The film likewise does not glamorize "the cause" as a blanket statement . Each leader of the anti-war movement reveals their ideological disagreements and nuances in how to proceed with the protests (some more productive than others).

Sorkin's directing is straightforward in its confidence and delivers the story of the trial with energized momentum. There is not much room for cinematic nuance in this dramatic model, which may disappoint art-house film aficionados; however, the The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) will hit a nerve through its moving and stylish reflection on a contentious time in history not too far off from our own current social circumstance.

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