I’m not sure whose idea it was to get Aaron Sorkin to write this film but he was the perfect choice. This is about one of the most significant court cases to have happened in America in the last sixty years and Sorkin is the master of the court room drama. What with Molly’s Game, The Social Network and Malice he has provided some of the best court and deposition scenes in cinema history and of course he exploded into popular culture in the early nineties with the court-martial movie A Few Good Men. That’s the truth, whether you can handle it or not.
Even outside of this, no one writes an argument like this guy. He’s known for his ‘walk and talk’ moments but more than anything he is the screenwriter who constructs sophisticated debates and smart, drop the mic closing statements better than anyone. For this see all of the above as well as Charlie Wilson’s War and Moneyball and, for the most wonderful examples, his TV shows The Newsroom and The West Wing.
Spielberg was initially attached to this film in 2007 and it was then that Sorkin wrote the screenplay, so maybe this whole thing was down to him. It is Sorkin that has revived it now though, taking the role of director as well. It is interesting that this was originally authored thirteen years ago because it feels very much suited to now, with its story about political manoeuvring, Presidential corruption and reframing the facts. Mind you, George W. Bush was in the White House back then so while it might not have been as relevant it is now, it would have still hit home then. (God, do you remember when we thought Bush Jr. was as bad as it could get?)
The Chicago 7 were a selection of political activists who found themselves at the heart of a demonstration against the Vietnam War that turned violent when protesters clashed with police. Following Nixon’s appointment, and that of new Attorney General John N. Mitchell who was a close friend of Nixon and one of the six government advisors to later be charged and imprisoned for Watergate, the men were arrested, even though the incident had happened six months previously and no one sought legal action at the time. The resulting trial is now widely considered a legal farce and the details of this are played for great drama here.
Despite my opening, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not as Sorkinesque as some of his other work. Most of the conversations happen round tables rather than up and down corridors for a start but there is no one central character, be it Molly Bloom, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Billy Beane, Charlie Wilson or Josiah Bartlett who is the most intelligent and principled person in the room. Instead his typical ensemble cast share equal billing this time and they are all superb. This is probably Eddie Redmayne’s best performance outside of The Theory of Everything, but there are also excellent turns from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeremy Strong, Alex Sharp, John Carroll Lynch and Yahya Abdul Mateen II, the latter of who is building on superb work in Watchmen and further away from his work in Aquaman, as well as reliables Mark Rylance and Michael Keaton. The MVPs though are probably Frank Legella as the infuriating Judge Julius Hoffman and back on the other side of the bench, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman (no relation but still the prompt for a great line that was apparently said in real life). This is Baron Cohen’s highest profile straight part to date and while it is clearly him he is almost unrecognisable as Borat or Ali G.
The strength is certainly in the script and these performances. As a director Sorkin seems to be playing it safe and one can only wonder what the combination of him and Spielberg would have been like. It doesn’t matter though as the script and the cast are great.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is quite an easy film, only when one of the defendants is restrained does it feel shocking, but it is still highly rewarding. May the record reflect that you should bear witness to this as soon as restitution allows – or something. Give me a break, Sorkin’s the wordsmith, not me.
The Ripley Factor:
As brilliant as Sorkin is, and C. J. Cregg notwithstanding, he is not known for his strong female characters. At a Q&A for Molly’s Game I once heard him say that he can’t really write in a woman’s voice so he just writes in his own. On this occasion he hasn’t made much effort to the contrary having the women in this film supporting their husbands, answering the phone or taking minutes. There is one women FBI Agent but she’s more Daisy Duck than Clarice Starling.