The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) Review

Courtroom and political dramas are what Aaron Sorkin does best in his impressive writing credits. This can be evidently seen in the hit 1992 movie A Few Good Men and the long-running TV series of The West Wing.

In his latest writing gig, where he also handled the directorial effort for the second time since 2017’s well-acted but overlong Molly’s Game, Sorkin combines his familiarity with both of the aforementioned subject matters in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

The movie, which can be streamed on Netflix beginning October 16, boasts an intriguing true-story premise that it’s difficult to ignore: The “Chicago 7” in question refers to the seven defendants — among them include Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) — who are all charging with inciting to riot related to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Joining them is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of the Black Panther group being tried for the conspiracy, even though he has nothing to do with the defendants other than happening to be in Chicago during the riot.

All the usual suspects are here: snappy and acid-tongued dialogues as well as sardonic wits that Sorkin clearly has a field day making The Trial of the Chicago 7 a courtroom circus both literally and figuratively. He also made good use of his ensemble cast, notably Sacha Baron Cohen’s flamboyant portrayal of Abbie Hoffman while Jeremy Strong and Eddie Redmayne both excel in their respective roles as Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden.

Equally worth praising here is the ever-reliable Mark Rylance as the defence lawyer William Kunstler and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s charismatic supporting turn as Bobby Seale. Frank Langella, in the meantime, pulls off a showy performance as the cranky Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t get to do much here but still manages to make quite an impression in his understated performance as the prosecutor Richard Schultz.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong in "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020)

Now, if only the rest of the movie can match with Sorkin’s spot-on dialogues and the solid ensemble cast, we would have a winner here. For all the sensational subject matter that couldn’t be more timely enough, Sorkin remains rough around the edges when comes to his directing part.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 was originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg and if he chose to remain on board, the movie would find a better balance between Spielberg’s sure-handed directorial skill and Sorkin’s good ears for dialogues.

As a result, there are times The Trial of the Chicago 7 looks visually flat and uninspiring. Even the flashbacks to the riot scene feel more like an afterthought than something that evokes a sense of dramatic urgency.

Already touted as one of the Oscar hopefuls, Sorkin’s second directorial effort has its few moments but given this is a high-profile prestige project, The Trial of the Chicago 7 clearly deserved better and not just a passable screen treatment.