4.5 / 5 Stars
Director and writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) is a great writer of enthrallingly energetic dialogue and especially entertaining films. His latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is no exception. Aaron Sorkin believes in an America that never existed and much of his work can be described as centrist pornography featuring dreamy righteous men doing the right thing. His latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is no exception.
Having already written an all-time courtroom drama in A Few Good Men, Sorkin dials up the heat by delivering a kangaroo court full of anger and hysterics. In this courtroom, incurring the wrath of the judge is a rite of passage, and earning contempt of court citations are badges of noble achievement. It’s like if A Few Good Men was the Nicholson examination scene for a whole movie, but somehow even more ridiculous. At least this time this film is anchored to the real-life infamous trial of the eight organisers of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations that turned into riots in 1968 Chicago. The film begins with the trial and flashes through the events of the demonstrations as they are mentioned; common Sorkin screenplay structure.
The weapon of choice in this battlefield-like courtroom is dialogue, and the fantastic ensemble cast relish in unleashing their malicious word-bullets. Many of the excellent performances have been overlooked for awards, with defendants Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen), lawyer Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Dunkirk), and judge Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) particularly standing out. Eddie Redmayne (spinoff Harry Potter) also stands out for delivering a bizarrely bad performance in a miscast role, continually providing the expressions of a person in need of visiting a bathroom.
The film is not entirely historically accurate. Does it matter? I say nah. Sorkin describes his approach to real-life material as making a painting, not taking a photograph. While primarily based off interviews with participants and the court transcript, it is worth considering that the historical events have been filtered through Sorkin’s politically illiterate lens, and many characters are highly distorted for dramatic purposes. Many claim Sorkin provides weak direction featuring excessive close-ups and an overuse of music that undermines his own writing, but this assertion is somewhat overstated. The film is, after all, a likely best director and best picture contender at the Academy Awards (though in a reduced field of films).
While the screenplay is of undoubtedly high quality, it appears likely this is where the weaknesses of the film actually originate. Firstly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (Inception) prosecutor character is a particular failing, and while the performance is certainly not fantastic, the character completely fails to hit the mark and drains the energy from various scenes. Secondly, pacing is an issue throughout, and after an encapsulating opening scene the film progressively loses energy towards a slower mid-section. Thirdly, a crucial deposition-like scene that is seemingly building towards an intense climax instead provides a laughably anti-climatic resolution of terrible grammar.
The management and depiction of the racial aspects of both the trial and the wider period are average at best. Defendant and Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale’s (Abdul-Mateen II) storyline is managed largely effectively, albeit with a few hiccups. Fellow real-life Black Panther Fred Hampton, however, is forced into the film in an unfortunately tokenistic manner. Hampton was the victim of the most appalling police brutality, and while acknowledged, it is regrettably appropriated to advance the arcs of the main characters. Contrasted with the portrayal of Hampton in fellow academy award contender Judas and the Black Messiah (starring Hampton rather than as a supporting character) makes this failing especially apparent.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a greatly entertaining film that is worth watching.
Tim is a First Year JD student.