History has a way of repeating itself. And with his second directorial effort, Academy Award Winning screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), transports us back in time to 1968, during the pinnacle of Vietnam protests where demonstrators and law enforcement clashed in an eruption of violence that mirrors the recorded imagery of present-day America. People were divided, political animosity had reached a boiling point, and a pivotal election was on the horizon. Ultimately, it was the result of that bitter 1968 election which set the stage for Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, one that he demanded to be released by its distributor prior to election day 2020, with the hopes that maybe this time around history won’t repeat itself.
The Chicago 7 opens with a montage of footage regarding the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy over a mere two-month span. Advocates for peace were being buried with bullet holes in their head, leaving anti-war groups with little hope that a non-violent approach would enact change and end the bloodshed abroad. Protest leaders like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) attempted to obtain permits for peaceful protests in Lincoln Park, but were denied by the city’s mayor. After many days of protesting that included multiple violent encounters between law enforcement and protesters, disarray surrounding the Democratic party resulted in a loss of the election. Five months later, after Nixon took office as President of the United States, the surprising arrest of these protest organizers on federal charges of crossing state lines to incite violence sparked a controversial, months-long trial that placed the usage of America’s judicial system as a tool for political warfare under the public microscope.
The true story behind this iconic moment in United States history is unavoidably complex and detailed. Yet, the living wordsmith Aaron Sorkin delivers such a sleek and crisp script that unveils key components of these event in a purposeful and periodic non-chronological manner. Sorkin wastes very little time placing the audience inside the courtroom, where a majority of the film occurs and a setting that is a true comfort zone for the writer-director. And while The Chicago 7 never quite reaches the same heights as Sorkin’s legendary 1992 screenplay for A Few Good Men, there is still plenty to appreciate in this newest work. Humor and heaviness do a delicate dance between the pages of this script. The silliness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s and Jeremy Strong’s hippie figureheads make for exceptional comic relief when it’s so desperately needed. However, their hilarious quips and antics clearly take the backseat to a more serious and ominous tone that addresses themes of racism, politicizing our criminal justice system and violence at the hands of law enforcement.
The Chicago 7 is not only a wonderfully-penned screenplay, Sorkin also steps-up his game behind the camera as the direction here represents a stark and noticeable improvement over his debut film, Molly’s Game. Furthermore, it would be a grave injustice to avoid mentioning this star-studded cast and the outstanding onscreen performances given by this ensemble. Outside of the stellar and obvious lead performances from Redmayne, Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen, Oscar Winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) brings to life such a noble and naïve character as defense attorney William Kunstler, and Frank Langella will crawl under your skin as Judge Julius Hoffman, an unfair ruler of law. These performances, in conjunction with Sorkin’s writing, create a handful of unforgettable onscreen moments. Yet, the constant busyness of having to provide an abundance of details occasionally leaves the film feeling flat in between these masterful scenes. The Chicago 7 may not be Sorkin at his best, but Sorkin not at his best is still extremely worthwhile.