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The Trial of the Chicago 7 review – thrillingly old-school courtroom drama

Entertaining, righteous, and packed with superb performances, Aaron Sorkin's second directorial effort has real fire in its belly

There are two distinct models of Aaron Sorkin script. One is his razor-sharp, bordering on ostentatious, takes on recent history, be it Moneyball, Steve Jobs, or the masterpiece that is The Social Network. The other is the overwritten sanctimony that plagued a lot of his post-West Wing TV output like Studio 60 or The Newsroom, and it was in this unfortunate model that his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, was made. Thankfully, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has Sorkin on far firmer ground, both as writer and director, a courtroom drama that’s both thrilling and politically resonant, bolstered by some powerhouse performances.

At the 1968 Democrat Convention, various left-leaning groups, from sensibly wonkish students to anarchist hippies to the Black Panther Party, descended on Chicago to protest the Vietnam War, a protest that became a riot after some heinous acts of police violence. Out of the thousands of protestors, seven were picked as ringleaders by the new Nixon administration, who sought, a year after the events transpired, to make an example of them, prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.

It’s a story with a huge ensemble cast that jumps back and forth between the trial and the riots, but Sorkin keeps things clean and coherent throughout. A peppy opening montage introduces us to the key players through a series of trademark Sorkin walk-and-talks, but things slow down after that, letting us luxuriate in the performances, dialogue, and period detail. Sorkin’s script isn’t quite as rapid-fire as a lot of his work, but it’s still distinctively Sorkin, verbose and funny and fully invested in the power of words as weapons of change.

It helps that not a single member of the cast puts a foot wrong. Eddie Redmayne is perhaps the most obvious “lead” as the stoic student organiser Thomas Hayden, but Sacha Baron Cohen runs away with the film as the more radical Abbie Hoffman, a hippy whose bedraggled appearance belies the fact that he’s consistently the smartest person in the room. It’s the sort of free-wheeling, scene-stealing performance that grabs awards attention, attention that Cohen would richly deserve. Elsewhere, Jeremy Strong is a lot of fun as Hoffman’s partner-in-crime Jerry Rubin, Mark Rylance is magnificently dishevelled as the group’s lawyer William Kunstler, and Frank Langella does sterling work as the hissably villainous (and borderline incompetent) Judge Hoffman.

The clashes within the courtroom between the defendants and Judge Hoffman, not to mention the stark differences within the defendants themselves, serve as the meat of Sorkin’s story, but this is not to say the actual riots get short shrift. Sorkin has considerably upped his directorial game, marshalling thrilling crowd scenes that throw you deep into the chaos unleashed by the police’s heavy-handed tactics. It’s impossible to watch these scenes and not think of the horrifying events in the US this summer, as the cops brutally beat citizens whose only crime was to ask for less violence from the American state.

Refreshingly, Sorkin doesn’t go down the path of trying to rehabilitate One Good Cop who opposed the violence, and the illustration of how little progress has been made with American policing over the past 50 years is stingingly powerful. With this in mind, though, perhaps more should have been made of the hideous treatment at the trial of Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Despite only being in Chicago for four hours on the first day of the protests, Seale was lumped in as an eighth “conspirator” at the trial and denied legal counsel, almost certainly to make the defendants seem scarier to the mostly white jury. Seale’s complaints about his treatment went ignored until, in a stunning display of sadism, Judge Hoffman ordered him chained and gagged, a sickening moment that slightly falls by the wayside in favour of a whiter story.

This is one of a couple of “white liberal” hiccups in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but this is still a story with an admirable commitment to speaking truth to power, made with the kind of handsome old-school filmmaking verve that seems far too rare these days (in this respect, it reminded me somewhat of James Mangold’s excellent Ford v Ferrari from last year). Academy-friendly without being cynical Oscar-bait, and as entertaining as it is righteous, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a rousing, crowd-pleasing triumph with real fire in its belly.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now showing in cinemas.

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