"The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance 
‘A Captivating Courtroom Drama’

Few court cases in American history have remained as relevant today as the trial of the Chicago 7. In 1969 Chicago, eight American protesters were charged with initiating violent riots by the government. Known as the ‘Chicago 7’, the group of defendants declared that their intention was to simply protest in peace. However, what started out as a simple protest soon turned into a vicious confrontation with police authorities. With its contemporary themes of racial prejudice, government corruption and police brutality, the controversial trial draws striking parallels with present-day America. It is surprising, then, that this historical incident has never been depicted on the big-screen.

Now, Aaron Sorkin recounts the trial for the first time in his latest film “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. A gripping, informative and powerful courtroom drama, it offers an eye-opening look at a little-known event in American history. With his second feature, writer/director Aaron Sorkin has crafted an astonishing account of an infamous legal trial. Packed with impeccable production values, engrossing storytelling and powerful performances, it is one of the year’s best films. Although “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is undeniably riveting, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It builds to a melodramatic conclusion that lacks subtlety. Nonetheless, it offers enlightening entertainment that will satisfy fans of courtroom dramas.

Based on actual events, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the true story of the ‘Chicago 7’ court case. Eddie Redmayne stars in the leading role as Tom Hayden, a righteous social activist that strongly opposes the Vietnam War. Assisted by his fellow comrades, Hayden leads a protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. However, what begins as a peaceful protest soon turns perilous when the group is assaulted by police. As the protesters are prosecuted, they become victims of the unjust judicial system.

It’s a fascinating fact-based story that is expertly told by writer/director Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a renowned screenwriter that is best known for his dialogue-driven television dramas (ex. 1999’s “The West Wing”). “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, however, marks his first docudrama and foray into an outrageous historical incident. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize a controversial court trial that occurred nearly 50 years ago, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using spellbinding cinematography, Sorkin draws viewers into the tense conflict between infuriated protesters and the government. From intimate close-ups to spectacular establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Sorkin creates a gorgeous film in which frame is filled with detail. Sorkin excels at recreating the scandalous court case, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If fact-based legal trials do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons why “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a must-see. The archival footage, period costumes and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an unforgettable cinematic experience. Sorkin proves to be an expert at choosing the archival footage for his films. Sorkin’s decision to insert archival footage of the riots into the film is risky, but it works tremendously. Assisted by editor Alan Baumgarten, Sorkin successfully employs archival footage to remind viewers of the harrowing protests. For instance, black-and-white footage immerses viewers into the disturbing riots. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Daniel Pemberton’s score is highly effective. It lends a sense of urgency and momentum to the film that is missing from most historical dramas. Through awe-inspiring production values, Sorkin keeps viewers engrossed in the world of anti-war protesters.

Another exceptional aspect of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the screenplay. Sorkin’s greatest strength as a screenwriter has always been his ability to use sharp dialogue to keep viewers interested in complicated subjects. In Hollywood, most legal dramas are driven by complicated technical jargon and consequently hard to understand. This often leaves no room for engagement and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. It is not often that courtroom dramas are filled with this much intelligent, eloquent and meaningful conversations. Using breathtaking monologues, Sorkin manages to condense a long-lasting event into a two-hour movie. Dialogue is a tricky device to utilize effectively in a courtroom drama. When used solely for exposition, it can often detract from the viewer’s enjoyment. However, it works extremely well in this movie. Using a smart screenplay, Sorkin keeps viewers absorbed in the legal trial.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. In an award-worthy ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave lasting impression.

Sacha Baron Cohen delivers his finest performance to date as Abbie Hoffman. Cohen has spent most of his career playing comical characters in provocative satires (ex. 2006’s “Borat”). With “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, however, he takes on his most demanding role to date. It is not easy to portray a real-life social activist in the counterculture era. However, Cohen pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the charisma, determination and rebellious attitude of the anti-war activist. It’s an astonishing dramatic performance from one of the most underrated comedians working today.

Eddie Redmayne is excellent in the role of a passionate social activist that condemns the Vietnam War. This is the actor unlike you’ve ever seen him before: intense, charismatic and persuasive in his most subtle role to date. As Tom Hayden, he showcases a knack for delivering inspirational speeches to the public. Whether he is motivating a crowd of protesters or confronting his government, Redmayne excels in every aspect of the role. It’s a powerful performance from one of the most seasoned actors working today.

The final, most unforgettable standout in the cast is Frank Langella. Despite limited screen-time, he brings palpable menace to the movie as the despicable Judge Julius Hoffman.

Although “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is undeniably an unforgettable courtroom drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a melodramatic conclusion. After building tension for two hours, Sorkin chooses to end the movie on an anti-climactic note. It’s an overly sentimental finale that overwhelms viewers with its heavy-handed political message. Consequently, it isn’t entirely effective at bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the movie may not please everyone. The film tackles hard-hitting issues such as racial injustice, government corruption and police brutality that may upset certain viewers. Due to its harrowing themes, this movie may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of historical dramas will definitely enjoy “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. A powerful piece of filmmaking, it sheds light on a long-forgotten incident in American history. Arriving ahead of the U.S. election, it’s a timely reminder of the never-ending wars against broken systems that civilians continue to fight today.

4/5 stars

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