The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella
Aaron Sorkin only comes out with something, either written or directed, every couple of years. So when he does bring something out, you stop and take notice. He wrote possibly one of the best courtroom dramas of all time in the form of A Few Good Men, so the question is whether the jury would find him, in his return to the bar in Netflix Original The Trial of the Chicago 7, guilty or not guilty of creating another classic.
With an all-star cast featuring some of the best in the business, Trial recounts the real-life case of the so-called ‘Chicago Seven’, a group of seven/eight defendants charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Considering the time at which it is being released, first in cinemas and then on Netflix on October 16th, it seems especially relevant to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, managing to capture the dual worlds of the sixties revolution slamming into the powers of politics and police.
With a writer/director of this calibre, it was always unlikely that the cast would turn in bad performances, and thankfully they deliver. Eddie Redmayne offers a great turn as Tom Hayden; sensible, well-mannered and reasoned, if a little hot-headed at times. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also brings a wonderfully nuanced, subtle appearance, and his standing up in the final moments is proof that he, admittedly a side character to a certain extent, is one of the best things about the film. Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman is a towering menace of a man, managing to become so incredibly unlikable that you shiver all over whenever he opens his mouth. However, top honours must go to, surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, Sacha Baron Cohen and his inspired performance as Abbie Hoffman. The actor, known primarily for comedic roles in the likes of Ali G Indahouse and Borat, manages to retain enough of his comedy persona to provide colour to moments that make full use of the character’s unique showmanship, but pulls off the most astonishing feats of acting in the more serious moments, stealing scene after scene from everyone else in the room.
The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael manages to be perfectly inspired, bringing the light down in the courtroom as the days go on, leading the audience into the dark as the trial progresses, becoming more and more aware that things aren’t going to turn out well. This visual flair, striking when it needs to be but dour in turn, can be seen throughout the film. The use of colour is also very important, most notably in flashback scenes set at the park. The costume design by Susan Lyall brings the flower-power era back to life in a wonderful fashion.
The direction is crisp and captures everything aptly, but nothing is standout. It seems that the total sum of the direction is either bland-but-competently edited coverage of conversations (and being a courtroom drama, there are quite a few of these), or a long tracking shot following someone walking through a room or down a street. These are your two directing options available, and though there’s nothing wrong with either of them, it does get old after a while. With a two-plus hour film which is essentially a back and forth between the courtroom and the preparation of the defence, with some flashbacks peppered in, the fairly uninspired direction does start to show signs of fatigue as the film progresses, making it start to feel its length.
The editing has a similar feel about it too. The transitions between the present day and the flashbacks of the riots are wonderfully constructed, but we return to an abundance of over-editing for much of the trials, reducing what could be wonderfully poignant moments into plain, mundane talking heads. It’s not at the level of the much-maligned Bohemian Rhapsody for over-editing, that much must be said, but it’s still not entirely excusable, especially when many of the scenes of physical conflict are cut together very effectively.
These issues seem to dominate the film upon leaving it; certain roles in the film’s construction are done very well in some respects, but end up being incredibly lazy in others. Even the writing from someone as accomplished as Sorkin seems off. To refer back to A Few Good Men – when Nicholson is in that courtroom and is facing off against Tom Cruise, you feel that this is the pivotal moment, the crux of the film; this is where the battle is won or lost; and when that moment comes, you understand that, instead of a big explosion-filled finale, this is our version. Trial doesn’t have this punch. The narrative rises and falls whilst never actually building to anything, and when the final moments do come about, it’s so sudden that you’re taken aback by the fact that there was no suggestion that the final day of the trial was beginning. Suddenly everyone is led into the courtroom in white, and the final speech is made. There’s a big triumphant moment as Redmayne’s Hayden reads the list of names of the soldier’s that have fallen in Vietnam in the time of the trial, but it feels like more of a snide middle finger to the oppressors than catharsis for the viewer; something which swells the heart superficially but accomplishes nothing of any significance. It feels like cheating the audience, as if they’d either run out of budget, or been told to cut the film down to size.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a lot going for it, and if you want a big, well-cast drama, then this is going to fill your quota. It contains a multitude of powerful moments and some sweeping imagery, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the tide of revolutionary emotion as the protestors return to the park and sight a sea of blue police uniforms on the hill. However, it’s hard not to feel that people put a lot of care and attention into certain scenes, into crafting big moments, and completely forgot about the others. How well someone is filmed crossing a room is just as important as a climactic clash between protestors and police.
Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 a good film? Yes. Is it, however, a great film? Just about. Just.
Review by Kieran Judge
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