Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s film tells of the infamous court case that occurred during the time of the Vietnam war, which saw several defendants on trial for the charge of inciting violence following an initially peaceful protest that occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the defendants in question having spoken out against the conscription of young men in the unpopular war. As the trial begins, it becomes clear that the odds are stacked against them, with an incompetent judge presiding over the case and with wholly unfair treatment of a Black Panther party member occurring at the same time, and as it becomes ever clearer that this is indeed a “political trial”, the defendants must learn to work together and to trust each other in the hopes of attaining justice and to clear their names.
I think it’s fair to say that Aaron Sorkin is one of the more prolific screenwriters of the decade, with his screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Molly’s Game being well noted for their intelligence, wit, and Sorkin’s impressive ability to create particularly “snappy” dialogue, and with his latest film, he has brought us yet another stellar script that manages to be enlightening and emotionally rousing, stirring up all the necessary emotions as we witness all the shocking and deplorable things that happened during the trial but also finding time for light relief as some of the dialogue (mostly through the words of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman) makes us laugh and we can perhaps even laugh at some of the boneheaded things that the judge comes up with, though he does turn considerably more nasty and unlikeable as the trial progresses, so we’re not laughing then.
With a film like this, there’s always the danger that it will end up as being too dry, dull or boring but under Sorkin’s pen, this isn’t allowed to happen; he makes the historical events accessible and interesting to witness, perfectly ideal for audience members who didn’t previously know anything about the trial (like me), and there’s always something worthwhile occurring on screen and as mentioned before, Sorkin is able to keep things lighthearted and funny at times, but he’s also able to create a considerably tenser atmosphere by showing us some of the more shocking and outrageous events that happened during the period in question, and his direction is accomplished as his pacing is ideal, the tonal balance is spot on, he gets the best out of his actors, and he structures the film very well by making great use of a non-linear narrative because even though there are times when the story “hops around” by alternating between the trial, the protest, and Abbie Hoffman’s stand-up routines, this works in the film’s favour as it makes everything so much more compelling and it shows off plenty of directorial flair.
The only minor problem though, as far as I can see, is the sidelining of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character Bobby Seale; as someone who was not even involved in the pivotal protest and who was only in Chicago for several hours on the day in question, he was nonetheless dragged into the trial, not given a proper defence, and was subjected to inhumane treatment at the behest of the clueless judge, but although this is all shown on screen and although these moments provide some of the more jarring and uncomfortable moments of the film, I still can’t help but feel as though Sorkin wasn’t particularly interested in him and as the film focuses primarily on the Caucasian defendants, Bobby Seale’s story isn’t given proper closure and I feel as though the film would’ve benefited from focusing on his struggle a little more.
Along with Sorkin’s excellent writing and direction, the cast of Chicago 7 also contribute greatly to the success of the film and every member of the ensemble cast all bring their A-game and deliver impressively strong performances. It seems unfair to single out individual performers, seeing as how the cast is uniformly strong, but for me, I’d say that Sacha Baron Cohen shines particularly brightly as the social activist Abbie Hoffman, getting the lion’s share of the comedic moments, delivering all the smile-inducing moments of levity with the comic timing and skill of the pro that he is, but also demonstrating plenty of heart and intelligence further down the line, Mark Rylance is as dignified, professional and just so naturally talented as primary defence attorney, and Frank Langella is the scene stealer of the piece as
Larry David’s dad Judge Julius Hoffman: a thoroughly incompetent, prejudiced, clueless and possibly mentally deficient joke of a judge who constantly interrupts with bafflingly silly comments and who has clearly made up his mind long before the start of the trial; Hoffman is one of the most memorable characters of the piece (I would say that he’s perhaps TOO stupid to be believable but who knows, the real Hoffman could very well have been that terrible) and Langella is pitch perfect in the role.
The rest of the cast also includes Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Yayha Abdul-Mateen II, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Michael Keaton and they’re all particularly solid and talented performers who all work together towards making the film so great.
And on the technical side, the film is visually appealing, thanks to Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, and Daniel Pemberton contributes a score that does well in ratcheting up the tension, drama and suspense but he also goes a little overboard right at the very end, trying too hard in pulling on the heartstrings and there’s no subtlety as the music clearly screams “big triumphant moment – stand up and cheer” in the final moments.