Aaron Sorkin brings his trademark fast-paced dialogue to Netflix in The Trial of the Chicago 7. In development since 2007 and a passion project for the writer, the film serves as Sorkin’s sophomore directorial effort. Featuring an ensemble cast, The Trial of the Chicago 7 follows the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
The collective included yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) & Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), family man David Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch), and college students Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), John Fronies (Daniel Flaherty), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp). Also thrown into the mix, by accident, is Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul- Matten II).
Defending the group against the one-sided Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and prosecuting lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is defense lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). The historian knows the basics of the Trial, but never full-on what led to the events. As a critic who loves a good history flick, I was looking forward to this film ever since the initial announcement of it.
Sorkin, who got his start in theater writing, knocks it out of the park with the film. One of Sorkin’s strengths is his writing when it comes to a cast of ensembles. Every person in the cast is on their A-Game and up to the challenge that Sorkin’s dialogue commands. Fourteen years ago, I served my country as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and one of the movies I had the pleasure of viewing at the base theater was Borat. In 2020, the man who portrayed the titular character, Sacha Baron Cohen, is one of my early Oscar picks. Cohen disappears into the role and becomes Hoffman and erases away the misconceptions that cannot excel in drama.
There are moments where Cohen gets the chance to flex his comedic muscles, particularly a scene where he mimics the clothes worn by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Jeremy Strong also shines as Hoffman’s confidant Jerry Rubin. I also enjoyed Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and the actor is now back in my good graces following Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Portraying our somewhat antagonists, Frank Langella and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have never been better. Langella delivers a simple line such as “witness tampering” with dramatic flair, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays a man on the opposite side of the case, who underneath it all may have more in common with the Chicago 7. I commend Sorkin for humanizing Levitt’s character.
I have to say next to Cohen; my favorite two performances were Yahya Abdul- Matten II as Bobby Seale and an all too brief role by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Fred Hampton. Fresh off his Emmy win for his awe-inspiring performance in Watchmen, Yahya Abdul- Matten II continues his journey to the Hollywood A-list. The actor delivers Seale’s lines as a veteran twice his age, and should Hollywood ever adapt Seale’s official autobiography A Lonely Rage, I hope they re-cast Yahya Abdul- Matten II.
Kelvin Harrison continues to turn in chameleon level, acting in his role as Fred Hampton. The part of Hampton is the young actor’s third role this year, and every performance has been different. While I know all too well the history surrounding Hampton’s ultimate, I do wish that Sorkin had given some more screen time for Harrison. Fans who are impressed by Harrison’s take on the activist will get a chance to see more of his story in next year’s Judas and the Black Messiah when Daniel Kaluuya portrays Hampton.
With an excellent acting ensemble and a message that still resonates today, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is easily going to be an Oscar contender and is one of the best films of the fall of 2020.
Final Grade A –
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in limited release and will be available on Netflix, October 16th via www.netflix.com/thetrialofthechicago7