For the past four years, movements and protests have thundered throughout the country. It’s hard to ignore grassroots movements and even harder for each to remain non-violent. Director Aaron Sorkin’s sophomore feature attempts to examine protestors who were slandered as violent men while attempting to lead a non-violent movement. While the subjects of his latest tale are not mainstream, The Trial of the Chicago 7 will look conventional to most audiences. Despite some genuinely terrific performances and another flashy screenplay, Sorkin’s film feels out of time. Rather than meeting a moment where many protest in the streets, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels instantly dated.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 opens as activists plan to protest the 1968 Democratic Convention. We’re introduced to Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the SDS, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of Yippies, and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) of The Mobe. Each group sets on Chicago to protest the convention. Meanwhile, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) plans on visiting the city and making a speech of his own. When violence erupts, these men make up eight of the Chicago 7 who stand trial for organizing the riots that occurred.
A stellar cast leads The Trial of the Chicago 7 into special territory. Sorkin knows how to pitch the dialogue, and his performers’ willing step into the actor’s showcase. Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman provide balance to the story as the defacto straight-men. Rylance once again steadies the rudder and guides most of our actions. Abdul-Mateen sets fire to the screen when given the opportunity, especially when paired with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Fred Hampton. Both continue to prove their immense talent, even if they are underused.
The cloud hanging over the film becomes Frank Langella, who earns his fearful reputation from the very start. Langella proves a rock at the center of the narrative, providing an ample villain when called into the role. His considerable screentime often keys at one-note, but Langella’s smallest touches communicate a well-established conservative figure in America today. Michael Keaton takes over the film for a five-minute stretch. Keaton consistently proves himself as one of America’s most talented performers.
The triumvirate of Redmayne, Cohen, and Strong receive the most screen time by far, and each adds surprising layers to their characters. Redmayne plays his nervous ticks off, but plays a subtle frustration with his fellow defendants. Succession fans will love Strong’s oddball Rubin, who provides comic relief to nearly every scene. Cohen handily proves the most boisterous, which gives him plenty of showy moments that he crushes. His charisma as a performer is undeniable, and Sorkin keys into his strengths. If someone sniffs Oscar from this cast, it would be hard to imagine anyone passing Cohen.
Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogue meets even faster cutting in the early portions of the film. The introduction features fast quips as scenes bleed over each other. Editor Alan Baumgarten quickly establishes the pace and energy that preside over the majority of the film. Interspliced Hoffman’s standup with testimony from the trial pays dividends. However, the film slows considerably in its second half as it veers into the seriousness of the trial, through violence against someone outside the group. Once this event occurs, the tone changes and The Trial of the Chicago 7 struggles to keep its focus.
The hardest truth about The Trial of the Chicago 7, is that the history of the trial glorified of a certain kind of protestor. Yes, the 7 were young, smart liberals trying to change the world. The infighting within the group, especially in their tactics, strikes a chord today. As the film progresses, it becomes impossible to ignore the white privilege these protestors possessed. Perhaps Sorkin’s best directing comes in the moments that openly acknowledge the difference in the tactics shown the black activists and the white men in the center of the frame.
Sorkin never puts his thumb on the scale for the audience to side with Hoffman or Hayden. That said, there’s little insight about the future of politics to glean from the narrative. Sorkin argues that radicals and process politicians need to learn from each other. That idea is far from new or revolutionary. This makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 more Vice than Lincoln. The conclusions of the film are generally accepted today. This leaves audiences wondering why the film was made today, and not a decade ago.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 carries with it the weight of importance. Yet it flounders when compared to other politically-minded films. Despite the strong ensemble, The Trial of the Chicago 7 delivers an entertaining but uncomplicated look at an era. Sadly, it adds a few new ideas in the process.