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Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Kyle Boulton reviews Aaron Sorkin's latest, underwhelming historical drama, 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'.

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Image Credit: Netflix

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,
Running time: 2h 9m
Rating: 15

Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) follows up his 2017 directorial debut, Molly’s Game, with a prescient exploration of the real life events at the climax of ‘60s counter-culture. While channeling great power in its political potency and star-studded ensemble cast, The Trial of The Chicago 7 ultimately delivers a lifeless, oscar-bait dramatisation of crucial US history.

It’s 1968 and the American war-machine is roaring. Drafting is increasing, more boots are landing on Vietnamese soil. An assemblage of left-wing groups, unofficially unified in their anti-war stances, proceed to Chicago’s Democratic Convention in protest. Some in the hopes of revolution, others in pacifistic opposition. Months later, the figureheads and minor associates of these groups would be targeted, by a new Republican administration, on charges of conspiracy and inciting riots. Protesters that would later become known as the ‘Chicago 7’ (or 8), as the film follows all the intricacies of their courtroom indictment.

Chicago 7’s performances are particularly strong. Eddie Redmayne channels Sorkin’s own centre-left leanings through the character of Tom Hayden. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong emulate Cheech and Chong’s higher IQ cousins through Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Ruben, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II shines in the role of Bobby Seale.

The ensemble cast is topped off with performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton and Mark Rylance. Such a strong cast results in a powerhouse of performances - each one perfectly evoking the stakes of this trial, both politically and personally. Cohen’s Boston accent can be somewhat off-putting, but no one else could have reproduced Abbie Hoffman’s comical and subtly intellectual nature better than him. Ultimately, the who’s-who casting verges on the edge of distraction, although a few oscar-worthy performances deter this from becoming a problem.

The most impressive element of Chicago 7 is undoubtedly the editing. Alan Baumgarten effortlessly illuminates all of the individual performances while rhythmically guiding the audience through a visually uneventful film. Some of the cuts, in keeping with the film’s dire sentimentality, are deliberate in the attempt to stir audience emotions, but this is a problem of Sorkin’s script more so than the editing. Baumgarten ultimately does a terrific job in matching the pace and intensity of Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue and bumbling screenplay.

So, how does Chicago 7 falter? It’s not that Sorkin has an easy task in balancing veracity and entertainment, but his execution is poor. The opening five minutes commence an overloaded, poorly mixed montage that rushingly wades through the eight protestors’ ideological nuances. If not for Baumgartern’s editing, the film would already collapse under its own self-assurance.

What follows is another overlong sequence – setting up the trial itself – which struggles to entice the viewer outside of it’s didactic dependence on historical figures having important conversations. Sorkin has no choice but to dump all of this exposition, but the end-product is clunky and uninspired. These two sequences, accounting for the first twenty minutes, encompass the entirety of Chicago 7’s scope – tiresome sequences of dialogue and courtroom theatrics interspersed by rambunctious montages.

These issues are exacerbated by a lack of visual and narrative kineticism. Sorkin does a decent job in relaying the story, but the techniques are awfully lethargic compared to other directors. He also struggles to translate his trademark, fast-paced dialogue to screen as certain exchanges become unnaturally shouty. Perhaps most indicative of the film’s vapidness is Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, which, despite being produced by Paramount Pictures, can only be described as ‘Netflix-core’. Even more unimpressive is Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack which is fairly blatant in its attempt to manipulate emotions during dramatic moments.

Underpinning all of these flaws is Sorkin himself, whose work is frequently critiqued for its overly-sentimental, ‘centrist dad’ approach to neoliberal topics. Rather than fence-sitting, however, Sorkin is more engaged in the political equivalent of “no shit sherlock”, insulting any politically-educated audience in the process. Hence why a documentary or series in the style of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us would have sufficiently enlightened modern audiences on the events depicted. Sorkin, unfortunately, is not distinct or energetic enough a director to transform these events into a film which both illuminates and entertains.

Ultimately, Sorkin’s latest historical drama is amplified by a social consciousness ineluctable from the times we currently inhabit. Despite this, the highly-acclaimed screenwriter is incapable of thoroughly converting this story of injustice and cultural politics to our screens. Due to precise editing and a brilliant ensemble cast, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far from awful. Sorkin’s timid, saccharine screenplay and lackluster direction, however, weaken the attempt to explore, and culturally reinvigorate, an important event better left for a four-part Netflix documentary.

Editor's Note: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix

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