Aaron Sorkin’s verbose writing style has cultivated a passionate audience of supporters, with efforts like West Wing and The Social Network standing tall as significant cultural staples. Few writers are able to make dialogue fly off the page with his adept sharpness and wit, a sensibility that Sorkin is now trying to imbue as a director. In his second directorial effort The Trial of The Chicago 7, Sorkin employs his usual bag of tricks in a misguided manner, straining for a substantive throughline that just isn’t there on the page.
The Trial of The Chicago 7 follows the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic Convention, which bursted into a chaotic scene once peaceful protests became violent. Democratic and anti-Vietnam leaders are now standing trial for their actions (Tom Hayden played by Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Caroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner, and Daniel Flaherty as John Froines), facing a trial that twists the truth at every turn (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale, who was on trial due to racial prejudice rather than having a meaningful role in the events).
Sold as one of the year’s biggest Oscar contenders, Trial certainly possesses the trappings of an awards darling. The all-star cast mostly lives up to their promise (Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen sometimes struggle to convey a consistent accent), with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance stealing the show throughout. Mateen II’s performance resonates deeply, portraying the deeply-seated injustices facing Bobby with a balance of controlled pain and unfiltered anger. Between this and HBO’s Watchmen, Mateen II is a rising star with a promising future in the industry. Rylance also continues his trend as one of the industry’s strongest character actors, deftly portraying lawyer William Kunstler with subdued charisma.
Sorkin’s limitless vernacular always spices up familiar trappings, yet his direction severely underserves his strengths as a writer. His debut effort Molly’s Game employed a level of slickness that matched its high-stakes world, but here, the slick editing style here just feels tacky (protest sequences awkwardly mesh with real-life footage in a way that detracts from their intended impact). Incorporating grand operatic moments throughout the trial sequences, Sorkin’s identity strives to strike the broad, yet profound balance of Steven Speilberg’s best work. Unlike Speilberg, Sorkin captures these essential moments with a mawkish cheesiness that mitigates any potential message.
For a film that feels impeccably timed for our chaotic times, The Trial of the Chicago 7 ultimately has little to say about its reciprocal issues. Sorkin’s insights dance towards a moderate tone that condemns its injustices with a wishy-washy voice, rarely taking on the critical attitude that’s desperately needed (a scene involving Bobby’s critique of the protestors different motivations felt like a glimmer of what could have been). Sorkin never makes a revelatory statement, rather preaching to his politically-converted choir with empty words of wisdom. It all concludes with an ending that sledgehammers it’s point with a clumsy sense of self-satisfaction, patting itself on the back without realizing that it’s painful injustices still linger on today.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has the prestige of an awards film, but that poshness creates a hollow examination of its critical historical period.
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