Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Running Time: 129 mins
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is an American film about the true story of a group of men who were accused by the US government of inciting violence outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, and the trial that saw them face up to institutional bias and a devastating miscarriage of justice.
The second directorial outing for legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is without doubt a historically fascinating film filled with passion. Complete with an amazing ensemble cast and Sorkin’s typically sharp screenwriting, the film is a gripping watch at its best. However, there are times when its format as a courtroom drama feels lacking, particularly when the moments outside the court are the movie’s strongest.
We’ll get to that in a moment, however, because the first thing to know about this film is that it’s a historically enthralling watch with immense passion for its subject matter. This isn’t just a dry retelling of a series of events, but a story injected with sobering relevance to the modern day and a fervid political viewpoint.
Focusing on the trial of a group of men who led protests outside the Democratic Convention in 1968 ahead of Hubert Humphrey’s nomination for the Presidency, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is a film first and foremost about oppression of thought, police brutality and the seemingly unbreakable barriers of an institution with all the power in its hands.
The story sees a range of diverse people clash with a harsh and incompetent judge in Frank Langella, who despite being clearly unfit to handle a case of such magnitude, is left to wield his gavel as he pleases, acting blatantly against the defendants time and time again.
Langella’s performance is fantastic, and he’s the person who really gets under your skin as he works against the defendants in such cavalier fashion, impressively embodying just how dangerous it is to leave power in the hands of just one entity, without any opportunity to challenge the decisions being made.
That is without doubt the film’s central message, and it makes for an engrossing watch. However, that doesn’t fit the courtroom drama style as well as it does a more standard historical drama style.
The film uses the events of the trial as the present day, and regularly uses flashbacks to detail the events of the protests and disturbances that landed the men in hot water with the American authorities. What’s strange, however, is that those flashbacks are almost always the strongest parts of the whole movie, grabbing you with a real sense of urgency that the courtroom scenes just don’t have.
I love a good courtroom drama, but The Trial Of The Chicago 7 isn’t a film that focuses on the intrigue of the case at hand. It’s not a movie that centres on weighing the evidence and different viewpoints and then making a decision, but more a film that comes straight at you with a clear point of view and political agenda.
That political agenda is a worthy and fascinating one, but Sorkin’s central messages just don’t suit this genre, and I would have loved to see him focus much more on the events before the trial itself, given how much energy and intensity he is able to inject into a few brief glimpses.
Coupled with a brilliant use of historical stock footage that rivals even the best historical dramas out there, Sorkin has made a film that brilliantly brings to life past events with modern relevance, but he spends too much time on a part of the story that doesn’t do that enough.
The trial itself drags a little too much, particularly in the film’s middle portion, while the growing tensions between protestors and police reach fever pitch in the flashback sequences. That makes for an imbalance which frustratingly undermines the film’s real power, which is what ultimately makes The Trial Of The Chicago 7 a less effective film that it could have been.
Overall, I definitely liked this film, thanks to an immensely passionate political viewpoint, a great screenplay, strong performances and moments of brilliantly urgent drama with real contemporary relevance. Unfortunately, the film’s genre and central focus is often in the wrong place, and misses out on delivering an even more powerful and even more intense call to arms in the face of injustice, which is really frustrating to see. So, that’s why I’m giving The Trial Of The Chicago 7 a 7.5 overall.