Originally planned for a theatrical release at the beginning of awards season, the well-intentioned but overbearing courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives on Netflix this weekend with an Oscar checklist in hand. With its 1960s-set true story that has ties to current events and an Academy Award-winner screenwriter at the helm, it’s the kind of movie that’s seemingly designed in a Hollywood lab with the intention of hitting as many conventional voter criteria as possible. While writer/director Aaron Sorkin has writing credits like A Few Good Men and HBO’s The Newsroom that make him a good mark for this material, the film marks only his second time as a feature director after 2017’s Molly’s Game and he carries over some of the corny and sanctimonious tendencies from his worst writing into his new career of directing.
The titular trial is that of a band of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, who allegedly conspired to incite violence among crowds outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among the defendants is the altruistic Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and smirking Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who possess wildly conflicting personalities but are unified by a common goal of disrupting the status quo. Tasked with trying the group of activists is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fresh-faced prosecutor facing off against the soft-spoken but determined defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Presiding over the months-long trial is the strict Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who hurls contempt of court charges liberally in his attempts to maintain dominance over the often rambunctious courtroom.
Sorkin and his composer Daniel Pemberton get off to a questionable start, scoring an introductory montage of the 7 with oddly upbeat music that comes across as blithe and borderline flippant given the highbrow tone it’s presumably trying to set. The cues during the dramatic courtroom scenes are appropriately exuberant but rarely rousing, pumping up the orchestral horns and strings as they cloy with self-importance. Working with editor Alan Baumgarten, Sorkin employs a snappy zig-zag narrative strategy that frames the trial sequences with flashback cuts that pertain to witness testimonies. The editing is competent and never confusing as it zips back and forth chronologically but is too spastic when it come to dialogue-heavy scenes, whipping between routine shot/reverse shot compositions at an unnecessarily hurried rate.
The remarkably qualified cast, which also includes reliable character actors like John Carroll Lynch and John Doman, seems to generally be on the same page when it comes to the characters that they are rendering. If I had to pick a standout, I’d look to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, portraying Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale with proper conviction and compelling resilience. The simmer in his voice when he says, “they tried something peaceful; we’re going to try something else” is the stuff that Best Supporting Actor nods are made of. Another immensely talented actor, whose name I won’t mention for fear of spoiling the surprise, shows up in the third act for his own “you can’t handle the truth!” moment, even if it doesn’t land with quite the same kind of impact as its predecessor.
For all its self-righteousness posturing and dubious bits of supposedly true interactions, the movie left me with one chief qualm: what is Sorkin really trying to say here? Civil unrest and street riots are obviously hot topics this year but Sorkin remains frustratingly inert when it comes to having a novel perspective on the subjects. Outside of some witty exchanges and occasional bits of cheeky humor, Sorkin simply doesn’t inject enough of his voice into his surprisingly shallow screenplay. Even though the whole world is streaming, there isn’t enough of an edge to The Trial of the Chicago 7 to make it worth adding to one’s ever-expanding queue.
Score – 2.5/5
Other new movies this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed concert film capturing a musical Broadway performance from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is What the Constitution Means to Me, another live recording of a Broadway performance; in this case, it’s Heidi Schreck’s play presenting multiple facets, historical perspectives and personal experiences with the U.S. Constitution
Available to rent on demand is Greenland, a disaster film starring Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin about a family struggles for survival in the face of a cataclysmic meteor event.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup