You don’t know what to do with the egg now, do you?
It’s a project tailor-made for Aaron Sorkin. So much so that I’m surprised The Trial of the Chicago 7 didn’t somehow worm its way into becoming his directorial debut rather than Molly’s Game three years prior. There’s the courtroom drama aspect recalling his play and screenplay for A Few Good Men, the government inner-workings a la his television show “The West Wing”, and the notion of a youth-led counter culture of bickering geniuses similar to the fast-paced insults and barbs thrown throughout his script for The Social Network. Add a necessary and timely liberal slant by way of “The Newsroom” and this account of the 1968 Democratic National Convention’s politically charged aftermath was surely catnip to write. No wonder its 129-minute runtime flies by like nothing.
That propulsive force despite the dense dialogue is a staple of his art and surely why he’s become such a divisive figure for both the form and politics behind each finished piece. There’s literally no place to find respite within the action as it crosscuts from a story being told in Judge Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) courtroom to that same incident playing out on the day—with an occasional third prong of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) relaying an expertly embellished and comedic version for the people who’ve shown up to hear him talk at what his lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) reductively calls “stand-up” sessions. The participants and the conclusion remain the same, but the journey there is always unique depending on the orator’s inevitably biased vantage point.
The case is simple: newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) is out for revenge against his predecessor Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) five months after the riots in Chicago ceased and days after his boss Richard Nixon entered the Oval Office. Believing he can achieve that retribution by throwing five men Clark refused to charge with criminal conspiracy to incite said event in jail, he recruits a young ADA in Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to show his worth by earning a conviction despite his own reservations about the feasibility and purpose of doing so. Strings are pulled to draw Judge Hoffman’s very sympathetic number, two throwaway defendants are added to the bill for wiggle room, and Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is tacked on for theatrics.
Sorkin isn’t one for subtlety so it shouldn’t surprise you that he leans hard into the fact Mitchell’s tactics are the very thing people like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) are fighting against while the Vietnam War rages on in the background like a political chip to play rather than a very real tragedy costing thousands of American lives. We see it in Schultz’s feigned complexity (he doesn’t like what’s happening, but he’s fine with doing his job anyway). We see it in the relish with which Hoffman and Rubin denigrate the sanctity of the court. And we see it through the fear of an establishment turning the spotlight onto its own obsolescence.
Comparisons to today (chant “The world is watching”) are therefore obvious and overt from the flagrant disregard for Seale’s rights (he was in Chicago for four hours and had nothing to do with the riot) to the reading of all the names of those who died by the hands of a corrupt structure saving face rather than acknowledging its error to course correct (I wonder if Schultz would stand “with respect” for the Black lives we’ve lost as they’re read aloud everyday in the streets and on social media). Hell, the infighting between Hoffman and Hayden is practically what just occurred these past two years as the so-called radical left (Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Elizabeth Warren) were forced to “gracefully” relent to the moderates’ (Joe Biden) will respectively.
It’s a symphony of disparate voices colliding in this months-long trial that did more to expose the government’s entrapment (most of the witnesses were undercover agents posing as members of the defendants’ movement) than provide concrete evidence of the defendants’ guilt. Most of the entertainment comes from this reality since the flashbacks to how naïve they were to be duped by these operatives is hilarious (Strong is fantastic as the lovelorn Rubin who becomes infatuated with Caitlin FitzGerald‘s Daphne) and the lack of respect that comes with knowing their trial has been rigged leads towards comical yet undeniably resonant sparring sessions with the judge. When the only way to ensure justice is done is appealing to a corrupt system’s corruption, it’s tough not to become disenfranchised.
So the fact these men can exploit that corruption at the same time says something. The Chicago 7’s nothing-to-lose attitudes (guilt was a foregone conclusion) can push their oppressors into showing their true face of evil in front of reporters and thus the world. That’s why they are hailed as heroes. Instead of backing down and toeing the line so Judge Hoffman might show benevolence after his kangaroo court declares victory, they make his life a living hell in order to expose him. They might lose the criminal trial, but doing this will help pave the way towards winning the “political” one Abbie is so intent on getting Hayden to understand exists. More than physical freedom, the ability to think and act for human rights is at stake.
Can it feel like blunt force trauma thanks to Sorkin driving his point down our throats? Definitely. But isn’t that part of the appeal? His scripts are less about divulging facts and more about highlighting the spectacle surrounding them. It’s his directorial choices that do damage instead. (What’s with that needle drop before showing a gruesomely violent rendition of the riot?) The entire conclusion is depicted with so much “both sides coming together” schmaltz that I half expected someone to turn to the camera and smile with a thumbs-up before a freeze-frame commenced the credits. A bit of restraint visually will do Sorkin well—something David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and others have accomplished with his material. The writing can run wild if the filmmaking holds it in check.
Sorkin needs the writing to do exactly that so his actors can showcase their talents by bringing it to life with an electric pace and quick-wit. Abdul-Mateen II, Lynch, and Redmayne are great, but Cohen, Strong, Rylance, and Langella have the meaty roles allowing them to match the energy of the words with humor and rage. So many of the best moments come when a character shuts another up since they all revel in talking over each other from frame number one. It’s all about the quips thrown in the middle of insane arguments and the outbursts interrupting serious monologues no one but the speaker is taking seriously. The government created a circus and the performers they put in chains gladly made good on that promise.
 THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L-R) YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as BOBBY SEALE, BEN SHENKMAN as LEONARD WEINGLASS, MARK RYLANCE as WILLIAM KUNTSLER, EDDIE REDMAYNE as TOM HAYDEN, ALEX SHARP as RENNIE DAVIS. NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020.
 THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020
 THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (Featured) JEREMY STRONG as Jerry Rubin in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020