There is no greater maestro of political debate and courtroom drama than screenwriter turned director, Aaron Sorkin. From A Few Good Men to The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is invigorating, grandiose, and always captures the imagination, and with The Trial of the Chicago 7 he does not disappoint. And, despite taking place over fifty years ago, it is more relevant than ever.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was made for the big screen, even before Sorkin injected it with his signature sparkling dialogue. Sorkin is in his natural element, dissecting and dramatising material with a message. The civil protests and clashes with police will be all too recognisable to some, the ranges of personalities within the seven make for clever, often humorous interaction, and the fierceness of the judge acts as a stark reminder of systemic injustices in the American judicial system.
The film is centred around the trial of leading radical anti-war protesters, who, after storming Chicago with their irked followers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, were apprehended. Seven of the different ring leaders are arrested and tried, with an extra political inclusion of Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers being tried with them. What follows is a court drama that, thanks to the electrifying edit from Alan Baumgarten and outstanding work from the all star cast, never gets boring and tells this shameful section of American History with slick wit and undeniable force.
Of the cast, Mark Rylance’s take on defence attorney, Willian Kunstler, is snappy and vitriolic, whilst on the flip side of the judicial coin, Frank Langella is on frightening form as the forceful Judge Julius Hoffman. Much of the drama within the court comes from these two, and they carry it with entrancing acumen. Of the seven, Eddie Redmayne’s student activist, Tom Hayden, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Yippie activist, Abbie Hoffman (who shines in a rare dramatic role), provide the two opposing ideologies within the group, and in turn, the war movement itself. This permits an exploration of the schisms that exist between each of the seven, allowing Sorkin to expose said tensions with verbal battles of wit and severity, which also provides the movie with a surprising comedic crutch.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a timely film, one that reflects the societal struggles of the time, whilst holding up a star spangled mirror of shame to how, despite the 50 year gap, the same arguments are still being had in modern America. Sorkin’s masterful script plus his growing directorial ability make for a film that is a contemplative yet often Kafkaesque exploration of a harrowing chapter in American history, delivered at a time so important to America’s future.
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