The year is 1968. A massive anti-Vietnam War protest at Democratic National Convention in Chicago has broken into an unprecedented turmoil. In the aftermath, Justice Department charges a group of protest leaders, soon to be called as The Chicago Seven, with conspiracy, inciting the riots, and other deranged charges. Nearly two decades later, it’s the time for Aaron Sorkin to bring charges against this legal clownery in his directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
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Now, as it was two decades ago, the message is still as clear and as relevant. Police brutality to peaceful protesters is still the same thing yesterday as it was in the past. Lopsided, political-motivated court and racial injustice are figments of recent news, while it’s the same thing during the actual trial of the Chicago Seven. Sorkin presents this courtroom drama not as a mere history lesson, but as a reminder of how latent the problems are. With high-energy and fast-paced dialogues that have become his narrative trademark, Sorkin delivers this important beat by beat eloquently even if this means he’s got to slow down a little.
It starts with a bang —Sorkin’s fast-paced monumental montage energized with Daniel Pemberton’s score— detailing how things went south. In a minute, we met Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), tasked to become the prosecutor for seven (or eight, actually) leaders of the protesters. In another minute, the seven (or eight) defendants storm the court as if they’re walking the red carpet. Among the defendants, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), organizer of a student group, and pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) take the matter rather seriously. Meanwhile, Yippie leaders, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), make fun of the whole procedure. Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is also politically charged while barely having direct involvement to the riot. In an embarrassingly twisted move, all defendants except for Seale are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Ben Shenkman (Leonard Weinglass).
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It is a political trial —with Justice backed by the government is set to make the defendants scapegoats and an example to people— and Sorkin isn’t shy away to tell the audiences that. From the moment the Chicago Seven steps into the courtroom, he makes it loud and clear. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) —not related to Cohen’s Hoffman— is keen to intimidate the defendants, especially Abdul-Mateen’s Seale with any possible move. Sorkin’s direction also ensures that it is not a personal story, but rather a movement’s story. The Trial of the Chicago 7 does not stray away from the courtroom as a story, not a setting, and will not stop to acknowledge and stop at one character. It’s pragmatic as it is electrifying, but if anything, it shows a little heart.
Rylance boasts Kunstler’s idealistic approach with pragmatism and his ability to do that is what makes him one of the finest working actors right now. Cohen, mostly synergized with Strong, proves that he’s worth than a comic relief, even when it’s apparent there’s no such a thing in Sorkin’s repertoire. His dabbling in a more dramatic role excels, even better than any other actors known for their dramatic capability among the star-studded casts. However, the pinnacle of it all is Abdul-Mateen II. It’s as simple as you cannot portray Bobby Seale without emanating the charisma; and, Abdul-Mateen II does that impeccably.
The finest work comes from the cutting room where Alan Baumgarten keeps the story concise and effective. It’s a massive story with a lot of things to tell and Sorkin delivers it as practical as possible, even when it costs a lot of thing. He’s got to slow down his BPM and kept the heart concealed as often as possible. If there’s something that irks you, it’s not the story’s heart but rather the movie’s display of challenges to morality. In the end, this based-on-a-true-story courtroom thriller still makes a balter of Sorkin’s electrifying rhythm with his star-studded cast. What the party misses is the flow and some jolts.