“Aaron Sorkin writes and directs a movie about the Chicago Seven trial” sounds like a pitch tailor-made to attract an audience of liberal-minded boomers (I speak from experience; my parents are currently on their third viewing of The West Wing). And that’s exactly what The Trial of the Chicago 7 is: classic Sorkin, down to the courtroom setting. It’s a fairly traditional, all-star telling of a radical moment in history that aims to please and mostly does. Based on the content, it’s clear that the time is right to be reminded of a story like the 1968 DNC riots. But while the format is enjoyable, it may not be the right one for this moment.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 recounts the epic trial of the activists charged with inciting the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There are eight defendants: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) head Students for a Democratic Society. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) lead the Yippies. They’re joined by anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and protesters John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is lumped in, just for being in town on the day of the riots. (Seale is eventually tried separately.)
Young prosecuting lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a decent guy stuck in a tight ethical spot. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a soft-spoken but idealistically-driven lawyer, represents the defendants. Overseeing the whole affair is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who’s hell-bent on getting the men convicted, impartiality be damned. Sorkin follows the action in the courtroom and the defendants’ deliberations outside of it, intercut with flashbacks of the 1968 riots themselves.
Sorkin’s script is peppered with whip-smart dialogue and idealistic speeches, and the film is stacked with solid ensemble performances that make the most of his writing. Strong is sweetly charming as the stoned Rubin. Baron Cohen is genuinely impressive as Hoffman, giving an intelligent, nuanced performance of a character that could easily have been over-the-top. It probably comes as no surprise that Rylance steals the whole thing without even trying, doing the understated and dryly funny work he typically excels at.
The film struggles a bit, however, with tone. This is an issue almost from the opening moments, as images of the Vietnam draft lottery and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy–intercut with scenes of the main characters preparing to go to Chicago–play over a distractingly upbeat Daniel Pemberton score. The film’s most dramatic element is Seale’s astoundingly unfair treatment at the hands of the court, but short of a few key moments, he’s treated as something of an afterthought and drops out completely after he’s removed from the trial.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like such a genre throwback (we don’t see courtroom dramas like this much anymore) that it feels more at home amongst 90s fare like A Time to Kill and Sorkin’s own A Few Good Men. The story and its themes, however, are extremely appropriate to today, and deserve an edgier telling than they get. It’s an entertaining film, but still feels like a softened, high school history class-friendly version of events. With all the parallels writers like to draw between 2020 and 1968, I do hope this period in history will warrant a slightly different kind of telling 50-plus years down the line.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” streams tomorrow on Netflix.