Aaron Sorkin likes a gooey centre.
Dressed up in compelling stories, righteous monologues and lyrical dialogue, you’ll usually find an earnest belief in good at the heart of his TV shows and movies.
Whether it’s the faith in public service in The West Wing and The American President or in the media’s role to shape smart debate in The Newsroom or the camaraderie in Sports Night, there is something inherently feel-good about Sorkin’s work.
There is no gooey centre in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a dark, rock-hard core, but there is an undeniable cynicism in its portrayal of the institutions of American power. In that sense, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the Sorkin of 2020.
Written and directed by Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 hits Netflix on Friday after a limited run in independent cinemas (you can still catch it on the big screen) and while it’s the dramatisation of a sensational 1969 court case, there are clear parallels to today.
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In the summer of 1968, disparate protest groups gathered at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, intent on making their anti-war cries heard. The ensuing melee was a riot in which the activists were met by 5000 police and 10,000 national guardsmen. Blood was shed.
Months later, Richard Nixon was elected to office and his Attorney-General decides to prosecute the protest leaders – seven men and Black Panther head Bobby Seale (Yayha Abdul-Mateen) – with conspiracy and incitement to riot.
The accused include youth activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), “yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and two others – Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) – thrown in for good measure.
Bobby Seale wasn’t present at the protests, but the US government does love to persecute a Black Panther leader, so he’s hauled up too, but unlike his white counterparts, he’s not given bail.
Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman play the defendants’ lawyers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt suits up as the reluctant prosecutor assigned to the case and Frank Langella portrays Judge Julius Hoffman, a man that will engender only rage.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has quite the cast, and that’s not even including the likes of Michael Keaton, Caitlin Fitzgerald, John Doman and Kelvin Harrison Jr. who pop in for smaller roles.
For an ensemble that large, Sorkin brilliantly balances all the different characters. There’s a clear sense of who these people are as individuals and their parts in a complex story that could’ve easily been convoluted in lesser hands.
He’s like a conductor in front of an orchestra, ensuring every instrument and note is in harmony. The musical allegory works for this too because Sorkin’s dialogue has a cadence to it. Sometimes his writing is the sun that overshadows everything else but here it’s merely a conduit for his actors to tell the story that needs to be told.
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And while all the performances are noteworthy and each thesp is given a moment, there are two definite standouts: Cohen and Rylance, who are both easily Oscar contenders for these roles.
Rylance as the exasperated lawyer William Kunstler, up against an impossible judge and a rigged process is the low-key heart of the film. It’s not an easy role to play and the progression of that character’s frustration and despair at the failings of American justice and a callous government is a marvel to witness.
But Cohen may be the bigger revelation here. His role starts off as comedic – both his and Strong’s characters are basically stoned hippies, or so you think – but it very subtly pivots into a character who is thoughtful, smart and to be taken seriously.
It’s so subtle, you don’t even realise that was what Cohen was doing all along, beguiling you without notice.
Sorkin is no stranger to a courtroom drama, having penned both the play and the film adaptation of A Few Good Men, and while The Trial of Chicago 7 spends considerably more time in one room, there’s no stiltedness to it.
Sorkin isn’t a particularly visual filmmaker but there is one technique he and editor Alan Baumgarten use that is effective.
The riot itself is only revealed through interspersed flashbacks and the brutal recreation of it – police with batons smashing unarmed protesters trying to get away – is nothing compared to the black and white archival footage of the historical riot that is spliced into those sequences. It’s a set of visuals that is all-too familiar this year.
The film is a sobering indictment on the might of unchecked, powerful institutions who not only do the crime but use everything at their disposal to cover it up and persecute those threatening to expose it.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 may be a gripping and commanding historical drama, but it’s clearly, urgently talking about now.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, October 16 from 6pm and is also playing now in select cinemas
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