Netflix's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' Is a Thrilling Courtroom Drama

Sacha Baron Cohen gives a great performance in Aaron Sorkin's new movie on Netflix.

chicago 7
Netflix

Mention the name Aaron Sorkin and you're likely to get a bunch of different responses. Some will immediately recoil; others will fawn. There are the commonly acknowledged "good" Sorkin projects: The West Wing, The Social Network, A Few Good Men. And the bad: The Newsroom, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Pretty much everyone will acknowledge he's a writer with a style that's oft-imitated, almost immediately recognizable, and full of peccadillos. This is all to say that The Trial of the Chicago 7, which he both wrote and directed, is both pure, uncut Sorkin and very good. It's material that perfectly fits his bombast, but in this context, it's expertly deployed. And, on top of that, it might get Sacha Baron Cohen an Oscar nomination. Go figure.  

The Trial of the Chicago 7, which comes to select theaters on September 25 and hits Netflix October 16, drops Sorkin back in one of his favorite places: a legal proceeding, as it tells the story of the (actually eight) men who were put on trial by the federal government after anti-Vietnam War protests turned violent at the 1968 Democratic convention. After a brief prologue introducing the main players, Sorkin cleanly lays out what a sham this whole affair is, as Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) explains to lead prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) how he's charging the defendants with conspiracy as a way of getting back at his predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton, he'll show up later), who declined to pursue the case and issued a bit of a fuck you to Mitchell on the way out the door.

chicago 7
Netflix

From there, Sorkin gets right into the meat of the trial wherein the conflict is not just between the two sides of the courtroom, but also the various factions within the accused. On one side, you have the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), long-haired, dope-smoking jokers. On the other, there's the Students for a Democratic Society, of which Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are members. As the more buttoned-up contingent, they are more inclined to try and affect change from within the system, while Hoffman and Rubin are pure anarchy in every sense. Then there is conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch) and leader of the Black Panther party Bobby Seale (Yayha Abdul Mateen II). Representing all but Seale is William Kunstler, played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, making a combover work for him. 

Even with the copious viewpoints on display, Sorkin's zippy script makes it very clear what's being debated. (Albeit nearly all the characters have his tendency to add witty zingers to a back-and-forth where applicable.) He breaks up the extended courtroom scenes with deliberately choppy flash-backs and -forwards, brief scenes which illuminate the dynamics of what happened during those August days in 1968. These sequences are energetic, and often as funny as they are violent. 

It helps, of course, that Sorkin has a wildly talented cast at his disposal. There will be debate raging throughout this bizarre awards season over just who does the best work. Is it Rylance in shaggy form trying to figure out a winning strategy, but getting more and more frustrated? Is it Frank Langella as the addled, cruel Judge Julius Hoffman, seemingly clueless and malevolent at the same time? Is it Keaton, dropping in for two great scenes? Or is it Abdul-Mateen II, standing up to the layers of injustice heaped upon him?

They are all wonderful, but perhaps the most winning duo is that of Strong and Cohen, who evoke a beatnik Abbott and Costello at times all while without losing sight of the fact that these were real people fighting for a righteous cause with the means they deem fit. Cohen, of course, is the real surprise here. From Ali G to Borat his talent is obviously unmistakable, but, like Sorkin himself, he's hit or miss for many viewers, some of whom grew weary of his near-consistent antics. His gift for transformation serves him well here, as he affects Hoffman's Massachusetts-tinged lilt and wry countenance. His Hoffman is always finding a way to mock authority, but also always 10 steps ahead of whoever is around him. He wields the man's ability to find humor in his serious endeavor like a weapon. 

chicago 7
Netflix

You'll note that all the names I've mentioned here are men. Yes, by nature of the subject matter, this is a dude-heavy movie, and that's fine. Sorkin -- save for the invention of C.J. Gregg -- has, let's say, struggled in the past when it has come to portraying women, and when he does inject women into the narrative here, he falls into the same traps he has in the past. The main female character of note is Daphne O'Connor, an invented undercover FBI agent, who flirts her way into the protests' inner circle by buying Rubin a drink at a bar. Sure, seeing Jeremy Strong portray Jerry's true heartbreak and disbelief while using the word "ensorcel" is a delightful comic payoff, but her entire existence is worthy of an eye-roll.
 
There are moments where The Trial of the Chicago 7 is extremely blunt, where characters swat declarative statements back and forth at one another as if they were in a tennis match, but it works astoundingly well with the subject matter. It's getting tiresome to talk about how "relevant" a movie is, especially considering how our current moment seems to bring together a million crises at once. But, yes, this film seems to eerily echo national conversations about how law enforcement in the US tries to criminalize and demonize all forms of protest. As with most of Sorkin's work, it ends on a note of dogged optimism. The score swells and the camera pans out to capture a moment of inspiring defiance. It's maybe a too little rosy, considering all that's going on, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 captures the messiness of this historical incident, all with that Sorkin panache. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.