Aaron Sorkin’s sophomore directorial effort is a return to familiar territory in some sense. The Trial of the Chicago 7, which Sorkin not only directed but write the screenplay of, is a courtroom drama infused with political themes and filled with his characteristic fast-paced quippy dialogue. Although this seems characteristic of Sorkin’s style, by no means does this render the film uninteresting or derivative.
Originally penned over a decade ago and intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg and star Heath Ledger in the lead role, the film centres around the trial of eight men charged by the Nixon administration, in relation to protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention.
At this point in his career Sorkin has become synonymous with the sharp and smart dialogue that has been a key part of his work on film and stage. The script manages to land a fair number of laughs despite the increasingly weighty issues that it takes on.
In structural terms, The Trial of the Chicago 7 bears a clear resemblance to Sorkin’s breakthrough work A Few Good Men. Both are based primarily in the courtroom with only sporadic journeys outside, in order to provide context and character for the rest of the film, or to flashback to the events being litigated.
At its heart is a string of great performances, however the strength of the cast is potentially greater than the sum of its individual parts. Eddie Redmayne is perfectly cast as Tom Hayden, leader of the New Left group, Students for a Democratic Society. Redmayne captures the young activist’s passion and commitment while also hinting at the deep uncertainty he feels about whether he is following the right path, and whether he has the courage to do the right thing, or even to know what that is.
Elsewhere Mark Rylance gives a memorable and lively performance as eccentric defence counsel William Kunstler and Frank Langella is infuriatingly good as Judge Julius Hoffman. The role reserved for Sacha Baron Cohen as “Yippie” leader Abbie Hoffman is less convincing and it is difficult to overcome the existing connection audiences already have with Baron Cohen from his long history of comedic roles.
Like any Sorkin project, it is the exchanges between characters that are the most memorable and plenty of these are provided in the courtroom. The most compelling though, might be the moments of conflict between the defendants outside of court. All from differing strands of the anti-war movement, they disagree profoundly about both the case and the manner in which they should seek their objectives.
For those unfamiliar with the story of the trial, there is no doubt that the film will provide a typically wrenching look at a period of American history that has been repeatedly revisited over the past half century. Despite some familiar elements though, it does feel fresh and engaging. Needless to say the themes of protest, social justice and faith in the judicial system remain incredibly pertinent.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was released on Netflix on the 16th of October.