Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is one of the few that can make a thriller out of people sitting in a room. In many ways his latest, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” uses some of the same techniques that won him the Academy Award for writing “The Social Network.”
The historical drama, which can be streamed on Netflix starting Friday, about seven protesters on trial for their actions during protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention has themes and situations that resonate in today’s political and social climate. Sorkin also brings together 2015 best actor rivals Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Michael Keaton (“Birdman”).
The weakest element of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is Sorkin’s direction. Certainly an improvement from his disastrous debut, “Molly’s Game,” and while this script is classic Sorkin, his work breathes far better under collaboration.
Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) testified that he wasn’t on trial for guns, violence or actions but rather ideas that he brought across state lines. Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party or “Yippies,” along with his associate and friend Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) made up two of the defendants.
Tom Hayden (Redmayne) is the most well versed of the accused; his association, The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam or “the Mobe,” strongly disagrees with the way Hoffman and his group conduct themselves.
But to the biased Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), everyone is guilty and no one is getting a fair trial. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) is defending the seven, with complete understanding that President Richard Nixon’s attorney general will ensure prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t lose.
“Rebels without a job” is how new U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) refers to protesters. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between President Nixon’s appointees and policies as they reflect on today’s events. Sorkin leans into those similarities but never loses sight of the message, which is ultimately about lives lost.
Sorkin seeks to educate and inform all the while entertaining us. Cohen’s particular brand of comedy is dialed down but never extinguished, as he plays the sarcastic Hoffman in one of his best on-screen performances. However, it’s Langella’s hostile performance as the judge that boils the viewers’ blood.
Editor Alan Baumgarten (“Molly’s Game,” “American Hustle”) has a real task not only cutting the backstory of events into the trail as each person testifies but assisting the audience in keeping track of the many characters and their affiliations.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a film that demands your attention. Sorkin is speeding through a trial that lasted more than 180 days within two hours, so each scene is full of information. It’s a dialogue-driven thriller if you let yourself become engrossed with it.
The “action” of the violent clash between protesters and police nearly equals the vitriol that bounces from different characters during different moments of the trail, including a stand-out moment by longtime character actor John Carroll Lynch.
Final Thought: Aaron Sorkin revives the art of riveting courtroom drama with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”