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A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews Presents: “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” (2020)

Netflix finds it’s next big Oscar contender in Academy Award winning writer and director Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant “The trial Of The Chicago 7”. Originally to be released theatrically by Paramount Pictures and at one point developed for Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller all eyed to direct. But Sorkin really is the only one who could have made this movie. Sorkin had it meticulously planned out and knew exactly what he was doing with “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. It completely plays to Sorkin’s strengths as a writer and the performances of his stacked stellar A-list ensemble cast that is too long and impressive to name here. Based on the infamous 1969 trial of seven protesters who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy, arising from the countercultural protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sorkin’s screenwriting expertise energizes what could’ve been a stiff courtroom drama. But he orchestrates a script so sharp that his writing is precise and just maybe feels a little too precise, in the same way he was able to achieve three decades ago with “A Few Good Men”. Sorkin’s film is a snappy, star-studded treat with huge performances, that Sorkin succeeds in reinvigorating the genre and delivers one of the best movies of the year.

If you look up Aaron Sorkin on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) it’s easy to see he has had an impressive and expansive career as a screenwriter. Best known for his television series “Sports Night” (1998–2000), “The West Wing” (1999–2006), “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (2006–07), and “The Newsroom” (2012–14). He also played a significant role in feature films. He wrote the stage play and film screenplay for the legal drama “A Few Good Men” (1992), the romance drama “The American President” (1995), and several film biopics including “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), “Moneyball” (2011), and “Steve Jobs” (2015). For writing 2010’s drama “The Social Network”, bout the birth of Facebook. Sorkin won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

He finally made his feature film debut as a director in 2017 with the crime drama “Molly’s Game”, which garnered mostly positive reviews and earned him a third Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. As a writer, Sorkin is recognized for his trademark fast-paced dialogue and extended monologues, complemented by his storytelling technique called the “walk and talk”. These sequences consist of a single shot of multiple characters engaging in conversation as they move through the set; and as characters enter and exit the conversation as the shot continues without any cuts.

Sorkin is back in the writer’s and directors chair for his second film as a director. Being kicked around Hollywood for more than a decade, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, began as a project developed for director Steven Spielberg. Then passing along to Paul Greengrass (“Bourne Supremacy”, “Bourne Ultimatum” and “Green Zone”), even actor and director Ben Stiller eyed it at one point. Paramount Pictures was previously the domestic distributor and had plans for a theatrical release until the coronavirus wrecked those plans. That’s when Netflix swooped in and bought the film from Paramount for $56 million. 

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is ultimately a complete work by Aaron Sorkin and in the end, he really is the only guy who could made this movie. Sorkin had this meticulously planned out and knew exactly what he was doing with “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. It plays to Sorkin’s strengths and those of his stellar A-list ensemble cast. Sorkin embraces the tropes of the legal drama and wraps them in the filmmaker’s progressive politics with wit, snap and a sense of over the top theatrics to match the atmosphere of the trial itself.

Aaron Sorkin’s bombastic “Trial of the Chicago 7” is based on the infamous 1969 trial of seven protesters who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy, arising from the countercultural protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The trial transfixed the nation and sparked a conversation about violent protests intended to undermine the U.S. government. Sorkin kicks it off with the obligatory Turbulent 1960s explainer, with archival footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing a doubling of the national draft call; the televised draft lottery; news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy and re-creations of young men opening receiving their draft notices.

On one side of the aisle were rambunctious, frizzy-haired Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong “Serenity”) and Abbie Hoffman (“Borat’s” Sacha Baron Cohen). On the other side, is a more pragmatic, moderate-minded activist by the name of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne “Fantastic Beasts”). Their attorney William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance “Bridge Of Spies”), a left-wing advocate in his own right, but a follower of the law who understood the conformity needed to get these rebellious activists out of jail. In the middle of the whole saga is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II “Aquaman”) who refused Kuntlser’s legal services and decided to defend himself in court after his own lawyer was hospitalized. 

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” alternates between scenes of the 1969 trial, archival and re-creation footage of the protests and defense strategy sessions at the Hyde Park home of attorney William Kunstler, dubbed “Conspiracy Office” by the volunteers answering the phones. Meanwhile, rising star attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt “The Walk”) quietly puts together the prosecution case, despite personal misgivings about whether there should even be a trial.

A perfectly cast Frank Langella looms large over the proceedings as Judge Julius Hoffman, who rules the courtroom, handing out Contempt of Court citations like they were parking tickets, growling his contempt for the defendants and their attorneys and sometimes appearing addled. Hoffman, Rubin and Seale disrupt the proceedings with their outbursts but it’s Judge Hoffman who orders bailiffs to “take Seale into a room and deal with him as he should be dealt with”. When Seale is wheeled back into the courtroom, bound and gagged, it’s a breathtakingly offensive moment to anyone who believes in the American justice system.

The 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 has been the subject of more than two dozen songs  (including Graham Nash’s song “Chicago”) and numerous TV and film interpretations, but leave it to the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin to deliver an electric, profound and important take on one of the most infamous and historic legal chapters in the history of both Chicago and the nation. The hot-button case maybe set in the late 60s, but speaks to the divisiveness that will reverberate louder in our current times more than in any other moment in time.

Getting smaller roles is Michael Keaton who shows up late and shows up strong as former Atty. General Ramsey Clark, who commands every room he’s in like the Marine he was. While rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. has a small role as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, whose murder by police would leave an indelible mark. Sorkin could have spent more time on such an important component, but fortunately we get to see Hampton’s story being told in full in “Judas and the Black Messiah”, opening next year. Stars Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, and Abdul-Mateen II are the film’s best performances, whenever they are onscreen, the movie is nothing short of gripping. 

There are so many aspects to the Chicago 7 trial that Sorkin can’t see or re-create them all. Certain events are rearranged from the factual timelines, and yes, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” exercises poetic license. This is not a documentary; it’s a dramatization of events that resonates with great power while containing essential truths

Sorkin creates scathing moments, filled with his usual snap, crackle and pop dialogue that he has been known to churn out so brilliantly for the better part of his 25 years as a screenwriter. Sorkin’s screenwriting expertise energizes what could’ve been a stiff courtroom drama. But he orchestrates a script so sharp that his writing is precise and just maybe feels a little too precise, in the same way he was able to achieve three decades ago with “A Few Good Men”. 

Sorkin shows us that democratic freedom is a fragile thing and at the heart of it is the ability to speak freely without fear of retribution. This year the Black Lives Matter movement showed that protest is all too often met with brute force retaliation or, more menacingly, a complete abandonment of justice. Here we are some 60 years later and the heroes like those on trial in the Chicago 7, who have the courage to do what is right can provide a glimmer of hope for today. However small it may be, Sorkin has made it relevant and shine brightly. 

One can realize quickly that Sorkin hasn’t necessarily left his ‘90s political drama roots and this is very much a movie made by Sorkin. But really who better than Sorkin to give us a courtroom drama of this caliber, filled with crackling exchanges and stunning outbursts? “Trial of the Chicago 7” was tailor-made for the Oscar season and Netflix has another Oscar nominated film on their hands following “Roma”, “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”. Sorkin’s film is an easy contender for a shot at the Oscars (if there is one this coming February). “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a snappy, star-studded treat with huge performances, that Sorkin succeeds in reinvigorating the genre and delivers one of the best movies of the year.

GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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