Films have continued to improve in a multitude of fashions throughout their storied history. Today’s eye-popping visual effects and creative set pieces make it quite apparent that the final product has come a long way. Still, at the heart of all these artistic creations is a story being brought to life with a screenplay. No matter how impressive the acting, or visuals may be, without a structured story and competent dialogue it can all fall apart. Even with such an important task, quality writers aren’t treated with the same level of acclaim as directors, aside from the true auteurs of the craft. Aaron Sorkin is one such example, as he time and again displays a penchant for rapid back and forth exchanges and zippy one-liners in some of the best written films of the past 30 years (A Few Good Men and The Social Network spring to mind). In recent years Sorkin has added the title of “Director” to his resume, with The Trial of the Chicago 7 serving as his second effort in the director’s chair. The result is a success, as Sorkin expertly utilizes a talented cast with another one of his great screenplays to deliver an engaging story about a stranger-than-fiction moment in the history of the United States.
The film follows the events of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 Chicago, where various groups of protestors amassed to speak out against the Vietnam War. As a result, the United States government gathered together the ringleaders of these protests, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), putting them on trial with charges of conspiracy. With Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) presiding, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was tasked by the government with securing a conviction, while William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) took on the task of mounting a defense.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 rests on the power of its screenplay, which is wonderfully paced and provides ample opportunities for the cast to shine. This fascinating real-life event serves as a strong hook for the audience, then allowing the story to inform nearly as well as it entertains throughout, regardless of a climax that isn’t quite able to match the buildup. While Sorkin’s directorial skills pale in comparison to his screenwriting, the film does not suffer much as a result of them. The cinematography functions decent enough, although some of the more chaotic sequences could’ve been choreographed better, along with a few edits that distract slightly from the story. Fortunately, the cast is more than willing to pick up the slack. Each actor proves to be an effective ancillary piece to the proceedings and delivers, at worst, a solid performance. The ones that stand out the most are Jeremy Strong, Sacha Baron Cohen, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Mark Rylance (In that order). Each does their part to encapsulate the real-life character they are portraying with just the right blend of bombastic energy and gravitas that the tale merits.
Overall, The Trial of the Chicago 7 follows the beaten path of many past Sorkin projects, but without as many of the high notes. Still, the final product is a highly pleasurable film that boasts a great script and excellent production design, as well as a star-studded cast operating near the top of their game. Without a doubt, the first two-thirds of the film work better than the final act, but it still culminates with an enjoyable finale. I give it 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical, or dialogue-driven films.