After a small theatrical rollout in late September, Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, was released for Netflix streaming on October 16. The writer/director is backed up by a large cast of famed actors, and makes the most of his cast throughout. The forceful, comedic movie examines the politics of the 60’s that are painfully relevant today. The film moves quickly without losing the viewer over two hours and builds to a rousing but slightly canned final sequence. Overall, the movie’s stellar cast, production, and script make for an interesting and topical watch that will give many people an introduction to an important part of American political history.
After building towards the inciting protests of 1968, the film more or less throws viewers into the subsequent trial. Even though the film eventually weaves through past and present to give viewers the whole picture, it can be difficult to follow who each member of the ensemble cast is and why exactly they landed in the courtroom. Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne both shine as opposing left-wing leaders accused of inciting the Chicago riot that prompted the trial, but Sorkin fails to flesh out some of the remaining seven defendants. At one point, two of the group are explained to be irrelevant in the scheme of the trial, but this exposition barely excuses their lack of presence in the plot.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale brilliantly, but his presence in the trial is not as pivotal as the other figures. As an eighth defendant outside of the numbered group, he is eventually left behind as the plot moves along. Still, Abdul-Mateen II steals every scene he is in, captivatingly fighting back against an infuriating judge and a corrupt system clearly turned against him. He is accompanied by Kelvin Harrison Jr. playing the activist Fred Hampton, whose death at the hands of Chicago police officers sticks out as a particularly powerful scene in the movie. The pair’s story serves as an interesting side plot detached from the arc of the rest of the trial, but there is little resolution to their stories in this film. However, of what we do see it is clear that their stories are worthy of movies in their own right.
Despite the movie’s beginning scenes focusing on the lead-up to a protest, the title more aptly sets the tone for the classic courtroom drama at the heart of the movie. The focus on the mundanity of lawyers, objections, and contempt of court often hides the key questions regarding the timeline of events or political implications of the case. Through the true actions of Nixon’s Justice Department and a judge that alternates between incompetence and obstruction, viewers receive an up close examination of the American legal system at its worst.
Throughout the movie, characters debate whether or not there exists such a thing as a “political trial,” but it is always clear that Trial is a political film. The events are steeped in the anti-war movement of the late 60’s and the actions of the Black Panther Party and, with such a politically charged setting, the characters can’t help but have their agendas and beliefs on display at all times. Additionally, the movie takes place directly after a presidential election and feels almost too timely as a result. Themes of protest, justice, representation, and profound national loss slot directly into the current political landscape, offering a bleak reminder to a contemporary viewer that we have been here before.
The entire film feels very warm despite its heavy subject matter. Saturated colors and 60s imagery bring the era to life, and the comedic moments fit right into what one would expect from a bunch of college students. The cast members mesh well, and their deliveries land even as the characters lean into some clear archetypes. By the end of the movie all of their chemistry pays off; the ensemble grows together, and the audience finds themselves connected with the characters.
Although it flew largely under the radar (especially compared to Baron Cohen’s other release this fall), Trial is a poignant and fulfilling watch. The Netflix exclusive makes the most of its stellar cast, and I would not be surprised to see some nods to a few actors or Sorkin himself as award season rolls around. The movie smoothly covers many topical issues without forcing them—for the most part—in a runtime that feels appropriate. In the end, The Trial of the Chicago 7 covers its titular events well enough to leave viewers wanting to learn more, but it is an enjoyable and complete experience in its own right.
Brendan Hegarty is a freshman in the SFS.