Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Director/Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen III, Mark Rylance
Genres: Drama, History
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images, and drug use
Release Dates: 10/16/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Where to Watch: Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a mouthful of a film title, but you’d expect something like that from Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing who is known for his verbosity. In his sophomore directorial effort (after Molly’s Game), Sorkin has opted to depict a moment in American history which with many of us may have been unfamiliar (I certainly was): the trial relating to protests at the Democratic National Convention in the 1960s. 

Sorkin does something right from get-go: introducing the main characters (members of the Chicago 7) by showing them briefly before the protests, and right away you get a sense of their distinct, varied personalities, despite being on the same side (against the Vietnam War). The editing is perfectly done too, as the screen moves quickly from one character to the next, saying the same thing but in different ways. They’re all based on the characters’ real-life personalities, but, like with any fact-based film, it accentuates these characteristics for cinematic effect. 

The movie is much funnier, at times, than I had expected, although this shouldn’t be such a shock; every episode of West Wing had enough comedic, fun elements to make me smile. Here, fortunately, Sorkin helps balance out the heavier elements of the plot by inserting some comic relief, only where and when it feels right.  That said, it not always an easy watch, especially when depicting flashbacks to protestors of the DNC being unfairly tortured (tear-gassed, beaten, etc.) — sound familiar? It’s no coincidence that this movie was released now, with the ongoing police brutality and seemingly never-ending injustices across this country. The Chicago 7 didn’t mean to incite violence; they merely wanted to make a statement about the super-deadly war. (Throughout the film, characters take the time to remember those who are continuously dying over there). 

Trial features numerous familiar faces, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, and Jeremy Strong has members of the 7. They’re all stand-outs, although Cohen and Strong probably have the best chances at obtaining Oscar nominations. While Cohen’s character is funny, the comedian brings enough dramatic flair [and a solid Bostonian-Chicagoan accent] to put him in serious contention for next year’s (delayed) Oscars. Strong always fully commits to his roles, even altering his voice a little. 

There’s also Oscar winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) as the 7’s passionate lawyer who could also be in the running for an Oscar. (I imagine they’d all be in the supporting category, as there isn’t any real, sole lead). The real scene-stealer here is Yahya Abdul-Mateen III, who recently won an Emmy for portraying Doctor Manhattan on Watchmen. This is practically a 180-degree turn for him; whereas on the HBO miniseries he brought humanity and subtlety to the character, here he portrays the leader of the Black Panther (who gets unfairly mixed up in the trial) with ferocious intensity. While I’d be happy with any of the talented gentleman, I’d love to see Yahya in the mix. 

Thanks to Sorkin’s breezy script and relatively fast action, the 2+ hours of the film go by fairly quickly. I was never bored for one second, even if the quieter moments (of which there are few). Perhaps those who don’t love it will complain that the script is too cocky and self-assured, but I found it too be just the right amounts of preachy and confident. So far, my favorite film of 2020. What can top this?