REEL Review – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Director: Aaron Sorkin | Runtime: 2h 9mins | Drama, Biography, Crime

In 1968, during a protest in Chicago, a riot broke out between anti-Vietnam protestors and the Chicago PD. Eventually seven people are put on trial for inciting violence at the protest, and become known as the ‘Chicago 7’.

Aaron Sorkin’s latest film is yet another example of the Writer-Director’s ability to electrify the conservative, taking a story set in the real-world and creating a cinematic thriller with factual directness and dazzlingly cutthroat dialogue. The film drifts effortlessly from the courtroom to the event in question as it tells the story of 7 guys (or 8 if you include the invalid incarceration of Black Panther member Bobby Seal) who are charged with inciting riots and violence in Chicago, during protests against the Vietnam war.

Sorkin is balancing the story so well – his knack for creating snappy interactions are on full show as he gives us information through the guise of the courtroom, the riot and even a smokey basement stand up set by one of the central characters. It’s a story that’s relatively complex because of the ‘he said she said’ aspect of the courtroom discussion, but Sorkin never forgets the overarching importance of the protests themselves. After all, stories with so many characters can often get lost in the shuffle, but Sorkin writing ability is second to none.

This is not a politically divisive film, the chaos that ensued in 1968 is a known fact to many people and the Sorkin is well aware of who’s in the wrong, but it’s more about the injustice they were served and how the system was against them from the very start. The beginning of the film sees the Attorney General offering the case to Richard Schultz – played conservatively by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – as they mention the 7 by name and indeed look to blame them for the riots. The sleazy and threatening presence of the Attorney General is a pretty fitting way to show just how the American government intended to deal with a lot of it’s problems – through squashing those that oppose through intimidating and mislead truth.

The film is full of great performances, especially from Cohen and Strong (one of the best character actors working today), they comedically echo in every room they’re in without ever giving into the archetype of their characters

The most interesting part of the film though is how the 7 come close to imploding within, all working in the same house under the supervision of their attorney’s William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). While all of the defendants have the same big-picture goal, it’s their own ideals on how to achieve it that fracture them. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) speak with clarity about the importance of non-violent protest and how inciting the reckless Judge isn’t a good idea, whereas the ‘Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) believe that a little controlled chaos goes a long way in destroying the system. Two differing strategies in the face of the same enemy, but it’s Sorkin’s wonderful ‘revelation’ that makes both ideals important, rather than brushing aside the eccentricity of Hoffman and Strong.

The film is full of great performances, especially from Cohen and Strong (one of the best character actors working today), they comedically echo in every room they’re in without ever giving into the archetype of their characters – and while we know Cohen has always been a one-man-band when it comes to his comedy he’s intelligently cast in order to give the character some well needed conviction. But, while the performances are great and Sorkin is in full control of his script, the film lacks the tight touch that his words so often have.

Too often the film feels like it’s trying to keep with the zippiness of it’s own script, unable to handle the more intense scenes in the courtroom. But maybe that’s down to Sorkin’s experience, as he bounces between characters and reactions there’s a disorientating sense of over-inclusiveness as everyones seems to need a reaction to every comment. He’s a director that is well on his way to becoming one of the most creative around – but maybe he needs a few more features to get there.

But the criticism is fleeting because the overall impact this film has is one that is much more effective because of it’s relevance even today. A film that wants to show you the provocative notions of systematic injustice, as well as showing the reality of institutional racism within the justice system. Sorkin’s style suits the film down to a tee, and if his direction kept up with his words better this could have very well be one of the years best.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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