Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton. Directed by Aaron Sorkin.
Aaron Sorkin is not a man that hides his political feelings — watch any film or show he’s written/created and it’s clear he wears his heart on his sleeve. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, it feels like the current climate in the wake of Black Lives Matters in his focus, but given that Sorkin is known for this style of filmmaking commentary, his second feature is not as smooth as one would hope.
For those not in the know, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (though at one point there’s eight), concerns a group of men — Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and to an extent Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — put on trial for allegedly inciting a riot while protesting the war in Vietnam.
The film also carries an impressive set of supporting actors, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Kelvin Harrison Jr and more. In all, the film is really about five people, with an additional six, rather than seven with an additional eighth.
The issue with Sorkin’s latest is that while the point he’s making is very strong – government picks people they don’t like and forces them into a situation by which they are the ones in the wrong, and that riots are incited by police and not protesters, the film is far too rushed to truly focus on it. Sorkin clearly likes being a film director, and he has a flashy style that matches his witty writing, but two hours to cover a trial that lasted well over 100 days is not enough time. Two of the seven are barely mentioned, and while the coming together of different people with similar ideals is interesting it simply isn’t given room to breathe.
Abdul-Mateen II is as good as he’s ever been as Seale, unable to have true representation since his lawyer is not present and supporting by Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, but the suggestion that the Judge (a stern but brilliant Frank Langella) is more prejudiced against him for being Black is barely acknowledged and very quickly he is taken out the picture, especially after briefly saying “oh Hampton was killed).
Thankfully, even once he’s out the film, the focus is on Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, a hippie with big ideas and his friendship with Jerry Rubin. Both as counter-culture hippies that openly mock the trial is funny and engaging, it’s Baron Cohen’s best performance, a career best that shows the emotional range and the dramatic weight he can bring, it makes his leaving Bohemian Rhapsody even more lamentable.
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Sorkin, however, doesn’t know what to do with all these characters. There are political issues that one Attorney General would purposely snub another and that would be considered treason, that miscarriage of justices happen from suppressing Jury notices, conspiracy to intimidate witnesses, and even the suggestion that the judge is suffering some sort of health issue, but there’s not enough focus to deal with any of them properly.
As is always the case with Sorkin, the filibustering and the flash get in the way of the point. Yes, it’s just like today: yes Trump is as crooked as Nixon, yes the Vietnam war was a tragedy to many young men — none of this is a new point. Sorkin wants to make points about Black Lives Matter, about justice in the US but can’t focus long enough to do so. Sorkin also is too flippant a writer to get the emotional moments right, and when he places them on a woefully miscast Eddie Redmayne – who sounds more Kermit the Frog than an American – the film just falls apart.
Even so, two strong performances and some flashy moments of humour keep The Trial of the Chicago 7 from being a complete failure.