The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/Netflix] - THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/Netflix] - THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 review
In 1969, seven men are charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong

The Trial of the Chicago 7 poster

As a writer and now increasingly director, Aaron Sorkin possesses a unique talent for making a piece of drama feel simultaneously energetic and inert. Such is his command of language that he can make a verbal debate play like a car chase. There are moments in films like The Social Network, Steve Jobs and Molly's Game that make us feel like we're truly in the hands of a great American dramatist, but when the end credits roll we look back and realise we were simply being fed juicy nuggets of a bloated nothing-burger. He sure can write a scene, but telling a story continually evades Sorkin.

In the case of The Trial of the Chicago 7, the nothing-burger is gluten free. It's a film that takes place in one of the most politically charged times in American history, yet is completely lacking in bite. As you would expect, there are occasional dialogue zingers and outstanding performances from actors suited to Sorkin's screwball-meets-Stanley-Kramer style, and the two combine to make the film's lengthy running time pass by quite rapidly. But at the end it's left to a few closing title cards to tell us what the point of the movie we just watched really was.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 review

The film concerns the 1969 trial of seven anti-war activists charged with inciting a riot at the previous year's Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The seven men range on the political spectrum from centrist liberals like student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and middle-aged pacifist David Dellinger (an under-used John Carroll Lynch) to left-wing hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen channelling Christopher Walken) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Attempting to corral them together and keep them out of jail is civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Also initially thrown in with the seven men, despite not having been present at the riot is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), added to the party seemingly in the hopes of swaying the all white jury to convict the other men. The prosecution is headed by up-and-coming conservative Richard Schultz (a wooden Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while the case is presided over by senile old judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, who manages to make something of such a clichéd if accurate depiction).

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A courtroom drama seems tailor-made for Sorkin's specific talents, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is certainly at its most energetic when it confines its drama to the courtroom. But like his 2017 directorial debut, Molly's Game, Sorkin's film suffers from self-conscious direction. Constantly borrowing from the filmmaking toolboxes of Martin Scorsese, Bob Fosse and Hal Ashby without really understanding what each specific tool is designed to perform, The Trial of the Chicago 7 too often descends into headache-inducing montages that are meant to give us context but simply detract from the central court-based drama. At least Sorkin avoids soundtrack clichés in  his portrayal of the Vietnam era (I don't think I couldn't have handled another montage scored to Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Fortunate Son').

The Trial of the Chicago 7 review

As you'd expect, Sorkin's film is most successful when its characters are cajoling, debating and insulting one another. The trouble is they fall into stereotypical camps that border on cartoonish, and when the liberals spar with the leftists it descends to clichéd jibes concerning the latter's unfamiliarity with soap or the former's lack of cajones. As for the conservatives, well they're about as human as the suited robots deployed by Dan O'Herlihy in Halloween III, to the point that when Gordon-Levitt's Schultz turns away from the audience we're surprised not to find a giant clockwork key protruding from his back.

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A  noted capital L liberal, Sorkin clearly sides with Kunstler and Hayden here, constructing his drama in a way that's aimed at making the viewer feel exasperated at the left's unwillingness to compromise. It's something of a hatchet job on Hoffman and Rubin - while Hoffman is given a moment to shine in the climax, his character is written in a manner prior to that point that suggests he's a narcissist. Rubin is such a cartoon buffoon here that Sorkin has him literally recreate a John Belushi Animal House gag at one point.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 review

If you're a leftist or a conservative, Sorkin's film will no doubt rub you up the wrong way. It's a case of a liberal centrist filmmaker reaching across both aisles only to pull his hand back at the last moment and cry out "Na, na, na, na, na." But you know this going in. This is the man responsible for The West Wing, the greatest piece of liberal propaganda ever aired on TV, a show that lionised the Democratic party in a manner completely undeserving of a party that would be considered right wing in any country outside the US. Put your politics on hold for a couple of hours and Sorkin's pen and the talents of his impressive ensemble will do enough to occasionally fool you into thinking you're watching a great piece of drama. There are enough memorable lines ("This is the Academy Awards of social protest and it's an honour just to be nominated!") and dazzling performances (after building his career playing insufferably over-the-top caricatures, Redmayne is a revelation as a human being) to paper over the narrative graffiti.

Ultimately the trouble with The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it's an anti-authoritarian tale made by a filmmaker who lauds authority. This is a movie that should provoke anger in the viewer, but the closest it gets is a cheaply exploitative moment in which a black character suffers in order to make our white heroes appear noble. Sorkin keeps telling us we should be livid, but he never makes us feel angry. Contrast this with Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell, as laidback a movie as you could imagine, but one which makes us leave the cinema wanting to hurl a petrol bomb through the windscreen of the first cop car we come across. Sorkin's resolution suggests that the trail was one big waste of time, but it's only the energy of its prose and performances that keeps his film from being equally pointless.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in UK/ROI cinemas from October 2nd and on Netflix from October 16th.

2020 movie reviews