“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a film that nearly didn’t happen — which would have been a shame, as the grandiose legal drama proves to be one of the best films of the year.
Conceived in collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Aaron Sorkin in 2007, the film follows the infamous trial of seven leftist activists from diverse backgrounds after their roles in the Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Despite its compelling premise and high-profile cast, the screenplay bounced between a number of directors throughout its troubled production, attaching director credits from Spielberg to Ben Stiller before Sorkin himself finally took the helm. Alongside a botched initial distribution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a feat of resilience that “The Trial of the Chicago 7” saw release at all.
But this trouble may have been for the best for Sorkin: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a tour de force, both for his writing and directorial talents. The screenwriter behind “The Social Network” and “The West Wing,” Sorkin has built a career off of glib white-collar antiheroes, breakneck pacing and an unapologetic embrace of the sensational — all of which “The Trial of the Chicago 7” has in spades. But his talent is most evident in how adeptly the film juggles so many narrative threads.
The major revelations of its central court case are at once weaved together from countless distinct perspectives — from witness testimonies to sidebar confessions, from unreliable flashbacks to recurring open mic retellings. It’s a grandiose recount of a historical event, hellbent on catching every ounce of drama from every angle. It may not always be clear where the film embellishes the truth, but aided by a slick visual style and an arsenal of editing tricks, it’s never hard to follow Sorkin’s delightfully scattershot version of history.
Taking Sorkin’s script and running with it, the ensemble of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a major highlight. It’s little surprise that such a decorated cast deliver strong individual performances throughout, but their thoughtfully dynamic chemistry truly elevates each actor beyond their individual talents. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” often groups its leads into dueling pairs, letting its characters clash over personal grievances — just as irreverently witty as they are dramatically dense.
Mark Rylance’s shrewd legal pragmatism as the attorney collides with Frank Langella’s performance as Julius Hoffman, the blatantly partisan autocratic judge. Sacha Baron Cohen’s signature comedic stylings as stoner yippie Abbie Hoffman — no relation, the judge is quick to point out — puts him at constant odds with Eddie Redmayne’s straight-laced college leftist character Tom Hayden. Disagreements between the latter pair address the rights to and optics of protest, a topic that particularly resonates in the wake of contemporary Black Lives Matter protests and lends the film much of its thematic potency.
Also present at the trial are a legion of supporting outliers: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrays Bobby Seale, an innocent Black Panther wrongly grouped in with the Seven, with a palpable resentment. His noble and fruitless attempts to voice his innocence make him a particular standout, and the shocking — and for the most part, historically accurate — response from Judge Hoffman calls into question the ethics of the entire proceeding.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” eventually runs into trouble in its conclusion, at which point the complex storytelling conventions and sleepless pacing prove difficult to neatly wrap up. Though it’s not enough to undermine what came before, the third act simply feels pressed to wrap up all of its thematic questions before they’re fully explored. The final pieces of the trial receive diminishing returns from the film’s otherwise compelling narrative, leading into a wholly disappointing final scene. With an overstated musical cue and a somewhat abrupt shift in tone, the final moments of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” reflect a noble sentiment — calling attention to the horrors of war that had sparked the protests in the first place — but simply fail to match the nuanced quality of the rest of the film.
But taken as a whole, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” proves to be a fascinating recount of a turbulent case study in civil rights. It’s certainly an editorialized rendition of history, ran through the filter of Sorkin’s idiosyncrasies and the casts’ tendency toward melodrama — but it’s greatly effective nevertheless.