The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An angry and passionate courtroom drama by Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin’s new film “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, which was released on Netflix in last week, is an angry and passionate courtroom drama which takes us into one of the most infamous court trials in US during the late 1960s. Although the real-life story depicted in the film happened more than 50 years ago, its infuriating tale of legal injustice and civil rights infringement still feels relevant as resonating with the ongoing social/political crisis of the American society at present, and the overall result is powerful enough to compensate for a number of weak aspects in the film.

At the beginning, the movie introduces us to a bunch of main figures who came to Chicago in late August of 1968 for their respective political causes. While their political backgrounds are quite different from each other, they are all hoping that their respective political demonstrations against the ongoing war in Vietnam will get considerable public exposure as being held near the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and it seems they will be fine as long as they stick to non-violence in front of those local policemen who are already ready to pounce upon them at any point.

However, as many of you know, their supposedly peaceful demonstrations unfortunately lead to a disastrous outcome which shocks the whole nation, and the movie moves forward to several months later. Shortly after Richard M. Nixon enters the White House as the new US president, the US Justice department quickly embarks on charging these various activists with several crimes including inciting riots during that time, and a young promising prosecutor named Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is assigned to the case although he has some reservation on the upcoming trial from the beginning.

Schultz is quite concerned about the possibility of the trial turned into a political one for both the US government and the defendants of the trial, who are called the Chicago 7 although the actual number of the defendants is eight due to the last-minute inclusion of a Black Panther member named Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Although he simply dropped by Chicago to attend a local meeting there during that time, Seale was wrongfully tacked on the group just for giving more bad impression to the members of the jury, and he is not even allowed to be defended by his lawyer, who unluckily cannot be at the court due to his sudden serious illness.

In case of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his close colleague Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), they are ready to fight and resist against the corrupt legal system quite willing to make a big example out of them in public, and their radical attitude often clashes with the more discreet attitude of the other defendants including Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). While certainly as frustrated and exasperated as his fellow defendants, Hayden tries to look moderate and reasonable in front of the members of the jury, but their efforts are frequently hampered by Hoffman and Rubin’s blatant acts of defiance, and William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), one of the two lawyers representing them and the other defendants except Seale, often finds himself struggling to get things under control among his clashing client, in addition to searching for any possible chance to avoid the guilty verdict on his clients.

Not so surprisingly, Kunstler soon faces a series of small and big obstacles thanks to not only Schultz but also Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who does not hide his personal contempt toward the defendants at all right from the first day of the trial. Looking stern and regal all the time, Judge Hoffman frequently blocks Kunstler’s no-nonsense tactics while also deliberately helping Schultz in more than one way, and there is a little amusing moment when he makes clear to the jury that he is not related to one of the defendants despite their same surname.

As the trial is continued during next several months without much progress, the defendants and their lawyers understandably get more frustrated and exhausted, and they come to discern more that the eventual outcome of their trial is already determined by the US Justice department. Even Kunstler cannot help but lose his temper after trying to maintain his phlegmatic attitude as much as he can, and Judge Hoffman is certainly ready to strike him more than once for contempt of court.

The movie comes to lose its narrative pacing while trudging toward its inevitable finale during the second half, but Sorkin’s screenplay still crackles with well-written dialogues. Although these dialogues sometimes feel a bit too polished for dramatic purposes, they are deftly delivered by the main performers of the movie, who are mostly effective in their fine ensemble performance. While Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen dutifully hold the center as required, a group of various notable performers ranging from Mark Rylance and Frank Langella to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeremy Strong have each own moment to shine, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who recently won an Emmy for his excellent supporting performance in HBO TV miniseries “Watchman”, is particularly terrific during a powerful scene where his character is unjustly restrained and gagged as ordered by Judge Hoffman.

On the whole, “The Trial of Chicago 7”, which is the second feature film directed by Sorkin after “Molly’s Game” (2017), is recommendable mainly for good dialogues and solid performances, and I had a fairly good time even during its several heavy-handed parts such as the ones showing how the riots happened via a series of redundant flashbacks. I wish Sorkin trusted his main performers more, but the overall result is still engaging nonetheless, so I will not complain for now.

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