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‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Review: Sacha Baron Cohen Transforms Sorkin’s Old-School Courtroom Drama

Sorkin's epic period piece about the famed trial is a giant, giddy burst of theatricality, but Cohen's performance is on another level.


“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

Nothing epitomized late ’60s iconoclasm like the trial of the Chicago Seven, a high-profile courtroom showdown between vindictive government forces and the righteous men who opposed its corruption. The nearly five-month proceedings were so loaded with histrionic grandstanding they practically anticipated the movie Aaron Sorkin would make five decades later. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is exactly as advertised — a giant, giddy burst of earnest theatricality, loaded with a formidable ensemble that chews on every inch of the scenery, that overall makes a passionate case for the resilience of its formula more than using it as an excuse.

Of course, Sorkin practically rejuvenated that formula by writing the fiery confrontations of “A Few Good Men” almost 30 years ago, and here directs his own blunt, energetic screenplay with the convictions of a storyteller fully committed to the tropes at hand. It works well enough in part because the trial lends itself to such artifice: When the government charged an eclectic blend of stoned rebels and non-violent anti-war protesters with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the resulting charade bordered on performance art. So of course the ultimate actor-as-performance-artist, Sacha Baron Cohen, steals the show and transforms an otherwise stagey period piece into something far more compelling.

As frizzy-haired Yippie icon Abbie Hoffman, the British prankster buries himself in a role both convincing and self-aware, managing a delicate balance far better than the unsubtle narrative around him. Hoffman and Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin (a hilarious Jeremy Strong) knew they were screwed from the outset, and decided to play the room for laughs, so Sorkin takes the original courtroom transcripts and runs wild. While his script reduces all of the chief characters to archetypes, Cohen justifies that outcome. After all, Hoffman was basically a homegrown caricature who used cartoonish bluster to obscure his intellect, much as Cohen himself has done across a career built on sardonic winks.

But he’s hardly the only centerpiece in this Fantasy Football League of a mouth-watering cast. From Frank Langella as petulant Judge Julius Hoffman (a bit much) to Joseph Gordon-Levitt as morally-conflicted assistant prosecutor Richard Schultz (solid) and a crafty Mark Rylance as heroic defense attorney William Kunstler (charming), “Chicago 7” stacks the deck with so much obvious awards bait that Sorkin can’t help but acknowledge it in the opening minutes: “This is the Academy Awards of protests,” says Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), one of the less visible of the charged, as he settles into his seat. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

As the reigning maestro of judicial face-offs, Sorkin knows the name of this game, and plays it like a pro. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Steven Spielberg originally wanted to direct such an obvious crowdpleaser with real-world resonance — he made up for that missed opportunity with “The Post” — but Sorkin is alive to its potential, settling into material that fits his garrulous writing style far better than his meandering first effort “Molly’s Game” ever could. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t a deep-dive into the Chicago 7 drama, nor even particularly deep in its sociopolitical critique. With its blaring score and breathless chatter about miscarriages of justice, the pace is downright algorithmic. But if you’re going to make an old-school courtroom drama with decades of precedent behind you, there are few more effective vessels.

Still, nothing in “Chicago 7” can top the brilliance of its opening number, a slick montage that introduces its eponymous activists-turned-martyrs through a smorgasbord of Sorkinesque fizz. A hodgepodge of archival material careens from LBJ’s update on the Vietnam draft to the assassination of MLK, as Sorkin launches into the overlapping plans of the future defenders: There’s the measured leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, Tom Hayden (a pensive Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the zany Hoffman and Rubin firing up their crowd, levelheaded family man David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), who ran the the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, and Black Panther Party national chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who sped through Chicago for four hours but still wound up lumped into the trumped-up charges as a co-defendant. Weiner and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) were tossed in for good measure.

Sorkin speeds through the rest of the setup — Rubin’s got homemade bombs, Hayden and Dellinger declare their peaceful intent, and the authorities label them all as revolutionary loons — then dives straight into Season 2: The police attacked protestors in a series of violent outbursts, and the Department of Justice found some scapegoats. Endowed with a vivid sense of purpose from start to finish, “Chicago 7” also operates as a nifty explainer for newcomers to the case at hand. The defendants were charged through a loophole in the anti-riot provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of all things, a decision that one official shrugs off with explicit irony as only Sorkin could write it: “It doesn’t matter why it was passed. It matters what it can do.”

So begins a boisterous trial that consumes the next two hours, with ample flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Sorkin’s script is both economical and verbose, flitting between courtroom frustrations, anxious strategy sessions, and lively snippets of the Chicago events themselves. For every burst of zealous speech-mongering, there’s another endearing zinger from Hoffman — who has fun with the confusion over sharing a surname with the judge — or a taut montage revisiting the Chicago chaos in question. The movie moves too fast to linger on its rough patches. In lesser hands, the abrupt cameo by an irascible Michael Keaton as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark might register as little more than a flimsy gimmick; for Sorkin, it’s an enjoyable extension of the starry framework that he embraces from the outset.

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

The most troubling sequence arrives with the judge’s decision to bound and gag Seale after he protested the absence of his lawyer, a sickening maneuver previously depicted in Brett Morgen’s 2007 animated documentary “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace.” That order came in the aftermath of the police shooting of Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and the confluence of those events leads to its angriest confrontation. Years later, the racist charges that followed Seale — and the tragic fate that befell Hampton — beg for elaboration; as with the coverage of the case itself, it’s been relegated to a slim-but-potent sidebar here.

Sorkin plays it safe with this large-scale portrait of a trial that has many moving parts. The movie churns along with the didactic intensity of a  sweeping history lesson, pairing the most dramatic re-stagings of the protestors’ police encounters with black-and-white footage of the actual ordeal, as if to endow the rush of chaos with extra authority. It’s an inelegant approach, but finds its way to a suspenseful confrontation in the movie’s final stretch, as the protestors crash through the window of a posh bar filled with high-society types — “an unnecessary metaphor,” as Hoffman puts it — and form meets function right on cue. After years of toiling in a director’s medium, Sorkin finally becomes a filmmaker in his own right.

Nevertheless, “Chicago 7” is never better than when it lets the accused men sit with their lawyer outside the court, passing joints as they argue through their fate. Rylance, who has aged nicely into the “hip elder statesman” role, meshes nicely with the zaniness of the youth culture around him (the 2009 documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” provides helpful context here). But it’s Cohen’s Hoffman — kooky and calculated all at once — who really elevates the movie whenever it starts to feel like a routine.

By the end, Sorkin can’t help but fall into the Spielbergian trappings of the material, right down to the gooey sentimentality of its final moments. Of course, there were no cameras in the courtroom, which allows for plenty of room for embellishment. Morgen’s “Chicago 10” documentary filled that gap with a rotoscoped cast (including an inspired Hank Azaria as Hoffman) and wielded more cinematic ambition when it came to representing the events at hand. Sorkin finds its built-in appeal: The earnest crescendo is almost quaint — all cheering crowds and orchestral swells  — but it’s hard to dismiss in a movie so invested in celebrating the democratic ideals of 50 years ago that it makes them seem just as relevant today. That’s obviously the point this galvanizing agitprop aims to drive home however it can. “We’re not guilty because of who we are,” Hoffman says. “We’re guilty of what we believe.” Preach!

Made by Paramount and tossed to Netflix in the pandemic uncertainty of 2020, “Chicago 7” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking vision, but it’s certainly a passion project of the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” variety. It could have been made a few years after the Chicago 7 faced their fate and fit its moment, but registers as particularly robust now: Sorkin proves that courtrooms have always been at the mercy of a flawed process, yet subject to moral scrutiny at every turn. A look back at rabble-rousers from another era won’t change the world, but “Chicago 7” is a solid tribute to a few men who realized they could, even when the system they fought for came up short.

Grade: B

Netflix releases “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in limited theatrical release on September 25. It will be available on Netflix on October 16.

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