Aaron Sorkin returns to the director’s chair in a week when Netflix dominates the release schedule. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is joined in selected cinemas by the streaming service’s The Forty Year Old Version – both arrive online shortly afterwards – while The Boys In The Band has headed straight to Netflix. The shape of things to come?
Best known for creating TV’s The West Wing, Sorkin first attracted attention with classic courtroom drama A Few Good Men, a setting that he returns to for this dramatized version of the sensational events in Chicago during the late 60s. As director and writer this time, he doesn’t hang around in introducing us to the extensive list of characters – those on trial, those prosecuting and those defending – all connected to what were intended to be peaceful anti-Vietnam War protests at the Democratic Party National Convention in 1968, but what turned out to a series of violent riots. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are focussed on their objections to the war, while hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) take a more chaotic approach to protest. Conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) reassures his family that he’ll have nothing to do with violence, and Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) simply intends to go to Chicago, take part in the demonstration and leave.
American audiences will know what happened. It’s also impossible not to notice the timing of the film’s release, just as the US heads for the final straits in its presidential election, even though it was originally intended for release in 2008. That the film’s centrepiece trial is political is evident from the early scenes, which are set some five months after the demonstrations and just as Nixon has taken up residency in the Oval Office. It takes everybody else about half of the film to catch up. Not that it’s a problem for the audience: it adds tension to the proceedings and thrusts a gleeful cameo from Michael Keaton as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark into the spotlight and the dock.
His scenes aside, this is very much a team effort, boasting some excellent performances, all vying for our attention. Mark Rylance is class personified as defence attorney William Kunstler, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his renaissance as his opposite number, Richard Schultz, doing his job effectively but with sympathies and beliefs that consistently lie elsewhere. There’s an unexpected treat in the shape of the Sacha Baron Cohen/Jeremy Strong hippy double act and Frank Langella’s judge will make your blood boil, regardless of whether he’s outrageously biased or just plain ol’ incompetent.
This, being Sorkin, is no docudrama. He’s made strong use of the colourful transcripts from the trial, but added his trademark snappy dialogue and underlined it with the authenticity of black and white newsreel footage. It’s polished stuff, weaving its intertwined narrative with silky easy and never dropping a thread. If it has a problem, perhaps that’s it. It’s smooth, glossy, borderline slick, but it was ever thus with Sorkin and his fans won’t mind in the slightest. Those less familiar with his work will find the combination of superb ensemble acting and magnetic storytelling, mixed with true events and heart-on-your-sleeve politics, hard to resist. “The whole world is watching” goes the chant running through the film. It should be.
Drama, Politics, History | Cert: 15 | Netflix | In cinemas, 2 October 2020. Netflix, 16 October 2020 | Dir. Aaron Sorkin | Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch.