THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020) -Aaron Sorkin’s Courtroom Drama Lifted by Superior Cast

trial-of-the-chicago-7

Netflix seems to be excelling with the all-star cast.

Like its dreary drama THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020), Netflix’s latest original movie, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, features a superior cast which includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella.

The only drawback is it’s an almost entirely male cast. Then again, back in 1969, the principal players in this story were almost all male.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is the story of seven protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, who were leading the crowds outside the convention protesting the Vietnam war. After Nixon had won the White House, his Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman) decided to put these men on trial to make an example of them.

The seven included Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne,) Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) not only had to deal with the young hotshot prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but also an incompetent judge, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and constant interference from the justice department.

The film chronicles the trial which between Abbie Hoffman’s and Jerry Rubin’s theatrics, and Judge Hoffman’s bizarre rulings and interruptions, like spending time explaining that although he shares the same last name with Abbie Hoffman, that they’re not related, often resembles a full blown circus.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006), and such notable movies as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), for which he wrote the screenplays, and his screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK won him an Oscar, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a first-rate courtroom drama.

I was fully invested in this story, and it held my interest from beginning to end. One drawback, however, is as a director here, Sorkin does little to make this movie cinematic. It definitely plays like a TV drama, made for the small screen, rather than a film to be seen on the big screen at the movie theater. As compelling as its story is, there are surprisingly few memorable images from this flick.

And the screenplay, as interesting as it is, never really goes full throttle. This is a movie that I appreciated intellectually, but sadly, emotionally I was never moved as much as I expected to be. And I believe this is because the dialogue spends more time telling the whole story rather than focusing on the individual characters and their plights.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some emotional moments, the biggest of which occurs when Bobby Seale is cuffed and gagged in the middle of the courtroom. And there are some tense moments between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance probably enjoys the best scenes in the movie, as his character attorney William Kunstler is frustrated throughout, but overall, there just aren’t that many sequences in the film where the heart starts racing.

The best part really as I said at the outset is the film’s outstanding cast, especially the veteran actors in the group.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Tom Hayden, and Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as Abbie Hoffman. And John Carroll Lynch adds fine support as David Dellinger. Lynch is one of my favorite character actors working today and has made notable appearances in such films as CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011), THE INVITATION (2015), and THE FOUNDER (2016) in which he also co-starred with Michael Keaton.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as attorney Richard Schultz who, while he is all in to win the trial, understands that these folks probably shouldn’t be on trial in the first place.

Mark Rylance probably delivers the best performance in the movie as defense attorney William Kunstler. Every time Rylance is on the screen the film is that much better. He plays Kunstler as a veteran attorney, who’s cool under pressure, and incredibly smart, but as the trial proceeds and he is met with more and more unfair opposition and tactics, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his cool.

Rylance is an awesome actor who has given some of the best performances in the movies that I’ve seen in recent years, including in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017). His work here in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is every bit as good as his work in those movies.

Frank Langella is outstanding as the incredibly frustrating Judge Julius Hoffman. He’ll have you shouting at the screen in anger. The only drawback with Hoffman is he’s inept from the get-go and so often sounds like someone with dementia rather than with an agenda, so while he’s infuriating he’s not a straight “villain” because you can’t help but wonder if he just isn’t all there any more.

Langella of course played Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON (2008), a performance that earned him his only Oscar nomination. But he’s a terrific actor with more credits than one can list, going all the way back….way back!….. to his turn as Count Dracula in DRACULA (1979).

And Michael Keaton delivers a scene stealing performance in his brief screen time as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. His two sequences, where Kunstler visits his house and then later when he’s on the witness stand, are two of the best scenes in the movie. Keaton is an exceptional actor who I still don’t think gets the respect he deserves.

Especially in recent years, Keaton has really turned it up a notch with performances in films such as BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014), in which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, SPOTLIGHT (2015), THE FOUNDER (2016), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), where he played one of Marvel’s most memorable screen villains yet and arguably outshined both Tom Holland and Robert Downey, Jr.

Also giving notable performances are Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, another of the seven, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as fellow defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, and in one scene John Doman as Attorney General John Mitchell.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a compelling courtroom drama which tells a story from 1969 that still retains incredible relevance today, serving as a another sad reminder that even after the traumatic events of the 1960s we still haven’t gotten that far in terms of healing and unification in this country.

As such, in spite of the fact that it never really rises above the standard courtroom tale and lacks the emotional wallop expected with this kind of story, it’s still highly recommended viewing.

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