Oscar Nominations 2021 – FILM REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Dir: Aaron Sorkin

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematograpy, Best Original Song, Best Film Editing.

Score: ★★★

There’s always something deeply appealing about Aaron Sorkin’s writing on films like A Few Good Men, The American President, Moneyball etc., and of course TV series like The West Wing, even if it all does at times feel a bit ‘Disneyfied’. The Trial of The Chicago 7 is no different in that it features the same kind of quick-fire dialog of a brilliant writer who knows how to make an intelligent point to the masses. Sorkin’s brand of liberal chatter, which is for the most part fairly on point, is a kind of American intellectualism strained through a sort of cartoon version of serious ‘issue’ drama. Here Sorkin writes and directs an ensemble cast of players in a well thought out courtroom drama that tells the story of the 1969 trial of, you guessed it, the Chicago 7, a group of non-affiliated left-wing activists cobbled together by the attorney general from different organisations (Black Panthers, Youth International Party, Students for a Democratic Society etc) and accused by the government of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention.

Sacha Baron Cohen leads the Youth International Party or ‘Yippies’ and others into protest.

The story is of course much more nuanced than that and Sorkin goes on to explore, in his usual fun and accessible but not horribly dumbed down way the different motivations, political leanings of the various characters on both sides of the divide as well as the era’s cultural landscape. As usual Sorkin tries to hammer home the injustices, the moral dilemmas and series of events in a way that keeps the viewer fully engrossed, has comedic asides and concludes with a stirring finale. All the elements are present and correct. There is enough cover from a talented cast for any of Sorkin’s dialogue missteps to be covered, but more often any holes in the actors’ performances are covered by the generally great chatter. Eddie Redmayne, who I normally find nauseating to the point of being unwatchable is his usual awful self but he is (like most of the cast) forced to motor through the dialogue which keeps his worst tendencies in check. His accent is, as is often the case with Brits playing Americans, crap, it is also quite incongruous to hear Sacha Baron Cohen similarly attempting, not altogether successfully, a U.S. accent in something other than sketch comedy. However, Cohen makes up in charisma what he lacks in dialect accuracy with some of the film’s best lines and importantly the stand out delivery of said lines to elicit the movie’s biggest laughs. An honourable mention should also go to the ever-remarkable Mark Rylance who is his usual fantastic quietly assured self as one of the legal team defending the seven. All in all, Sorkin’s slightly cartoonish cast of characters is entertaining even if not entirely believable. Frank Langella’s work as Judge Julius Hoffman must have been a tough ask considering the odd mix it is between real life lunacy and the moments Sorkin has chosen to ham up a bit for dramatic purposes. At worst however the cast leave no negative impression with Joseph Gordon Levitt and others silently inhabiting their parts in this Sorkin style teleplay.

Aaron Sorkin directs on set.

Oddly enough The Trial of the Chicago 7 intersects with another of this year’s big films as the story of the Black Panther Chicago chapter chairman Fred Hampton is a key part of both this and Judas and the Black Messiah. I would recommend perhaps taking in that film before this one for a bit of context. However, the two films are a study in contrast. Despite both looking at social justice issues in the same era, Judas and the Black Messiah is a study in moral subtlety, heavyweight drama, and cinematic majesty. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a little on the hammy side, certainly more lightweight and ‘fun’ and decidedly un-cinematic, it feels more like a TV production. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great watch even if it’s not exactly a great piece of cinema. To my mind, it’s this sort of talky dialogue heavy film that Netflix should be producing, leaving more cinematic and powerful fayre like Roma, The Irishman, Pieces Of A Woman, Mank and so forth where it belongs… in the cinema. John Ford once remarked you have a great film if it is ‘long on action and short on dialogue’. Of course, by action Ford doesn’t mean Vin Diesel style, exploding action, he just means characters doing and not saying, showing and not saying. This is at the heart of great cinema, generally the better a film is the less people have to talk. TV is the chatty medium, cinema is the visual ‘silent’ medium, but Sorkin is the exception that proves the rule, because when the talking is a good as this you can put such rules to one side for a few hours.

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