The Trial of the Chicago 7
- Emma Simmonds
- 28 September 2020
Aaron Sorkin delivers a thrilling ensemble drama based on real events
'There's no such thing as a political trial,' claims defence counsel William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) in a statement you just know is going to come back to haunt him. In the hands of celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), this slice of US legal history becomes a riveting ensemble drama, chock-full of ominous pronouncements, powerful speeches, moving gestures, outrageous decisions, spectacular fallings out, and last-gasp hopes.
It's Sorkin's second film as director, following the flashy but faltering Molly's Game, and he handles the complex, multi-protagonist narrative with style. He's identified an absolute ripper of a story in the titular trial, which involved the prosecution of a group of largely unrelated activists, who were pursued for conspiracy following the anti-Vietnam War protests that targeted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, charges which were prompted by the recent change in administration. It brings together a remarkable cast on universally fine form: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jeremy Strong are amongst the defendants, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the chief prosecutor, while Frank Langella is the hostile and obstructive judge, and there's a late-in-the-game appearance from Michael Keaton.
The accused are a varied bunch not inclined to agree on their approach to defending themselves, or what their trial should be about, so tensions abound even amongst our heroes. Abdul-Mateen's Bobby Seale (the chairman of the Black Panthers) is disadvantaged when his lawyer is taken ill and his frustration at being prevented from speaking in his own defence leads to the film's most shocking moment. The collective gutsiness and principled stances are appealing; that it's not enough to have the truth on your side never fails to frustrate.
Originally due for a full theatrical release, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is stirring, awards-bait stuff that should be seen on the big screen if possible. If it's very much a manipulative, movie version of events, Sorkin shows real mastery of his medium, telling a story it's impossible not to get swept up in. Putting you through the wringer with every twist and turn, it's a powerful, enraging and pertinent evocation of what you're up against when the establishment is the enemy.
Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 2 Oct and on Netflix from Fri 16 Oct.