Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong star as two of the seven men who went on trial after chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago
Only the second film directed by Sorkin, one of Hollywood’s most talented screenwriters, this packs a powerful punch
Sacha Baron Cohen (left) and Jeremy Strong in a scene from The Trial of the Chicago 7, directed by Aaron Sorkin. Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance co-star. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Courtroom dramas can sometimes feel staid, left to wither in one location. Then again, in the hands of a master craftsman like Aaron Sorkin, they can be electric. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a biographical drama that sizzles with The West Wing creator’s firecracker dialogue and an 18-carat ensemble cast. Full of weight, resonance and potency, it’s a leading candidate for the coming awards season.
The film is set in the aftermath of the chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, when seven men went on trial facing charges of incitement to riot. In just his second film as director after the gambling drama Molly’s Game , Sorkin introduces his dramatis personae with all the urgency of an express train, recalling the same energy that Paul Thomas Anderson used for his San Fernando Valley epic Magnolia.
Among the accused are anti-war activists Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).
Defending the group is William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), while Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther party, is also on trial separately. Somehow Sorkin manages to give each a voice, though invariably some are heard louder than others.
With his huge ’fro, Baron Cohen is in glorious form, providing just enough humour as a protesting peacenik without ever entering the over-the-top range that he usually occupies for the comic characters that have made his famous. Running him close is Succession star Jeremy Strong, as his friend and confidant. Abdul-Mateen II is also hugely persuasive as Seale.
With a cast that also includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton, it is veteran actor Frank Langella that steals it as the trial judge, Julius Hoffman, a man of considerable prejudice and incompetence. One moment as he literally silences Seale is so shocking, it’s hard to believe this man was ever elevated to the rarefied position he occupied. Langella’s long overdue Oscar must surely be in the mail.
With Sorkin’s own classic court-set A Few Good Men looming large here, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like compulsory viewing, having arrived in a year of renewed Black Lives Matter protests and with democracy on a knife-edge in the United States ahead of the presidential election. This is a powerful broadside from one of Hollywood’s most talented writers that you won’t want to miss.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 starts streaming on Netflix on October 16.
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