The courtroom drama is probably the most persistent classical film genre. Where most dead genres only re-emerge with one-off deconstructionist films, courtroom dramas have small breaks before coming back in waves. Interestingly, the formula hasn’t changed with the times, as each new addition neatly fits into the genre’s already established subcategories. There are the social morality tales like 12 Angry Men (1957) and Time to Kill (1996), civil rights discussions like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Marshall (2017), and mysteries like Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Primal Fear (1996). With so many variations, it’s clear why the genre hasn’t had much reason to evolve. Even so, Aaron Sorkin has given it a good shot with The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), which is a great blend of nearly everything the genre has to offer.
As the title suggests, the film depicts the famous trial surrounding the anti-Vietnam protesters charged with conspiracy and incitement of riots at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention. Despite being lumped together in the courtroom, the so called Chicago 7 actually have no affiliation with each other and hold very different political values in their fight against the war. Abbe Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are hippies calling for social revolution, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) is a political activist who believes that change can only be done in office, and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a family man and conscientious objector who even sat out WWII. All the while, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is being denied representation by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
While writer/director Aaron Sorkin is drawing inspiration from the genre as a whole, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is best described as a mix of Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and A Few Good Men (1992), the latter Sorkin also wrote. It’s very clear just how much fun Sorkin is having being back in this sandbox. Oddly, most legal dramas build the characters, perspectives and plot long before we enter the courtroom, but Sorkin energetically brushes past the set up and places the audience right in the legal battle. Like Nuremberg, it’s fascinating just how large and epic it all feels even though almost 90 percent of it takes place in a courthouse. While this could’ve been very confusing, Sorkin develops the relevant context and backstory as the case progresses.
Expecting the audience to be onboard for the ride at least 30 minutes before things get explained is a dangerous move, but Sorkin effectively builds to the revelations. Admittedly, the expositional set-up may be a struggle for those with no knowledge of these historical events. It seems more tailored for those with a passing familiarity of this story and these people, but that doesn’t mean Sorkin isn’t playing fair for the uninitiated. Sorkin rightfully expects the viewer to pay attention, as the script provides all the context in a clear and concise manner without losing the nuance. Anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work knows he loves communicating social and political themes with rapid fire dialogue, and thankfully this film isn’t irritating like The News Room (2012-2014), or overwritten like Molly’s Game (2017). Instead it sits comfortably next to The Social Network (2010), as the script is intelligent, subtle, thought provoking and occasionally funny.
Saying that Aaron Sorkin is a capable screenwriter is nothing new, but it’s fun to see him develop as a director. It feels like he is in control of nearly every aspect of the production, including music, cinematography, set design, costume design, and editing. This is very clearly Sorkin’s singular vision, similar to that of David Fincher or Danny Boyle. In fact, Fincher feels like the most logical reference point, as much of the procedural craftsmanship feels like it’s been borrowed from Fincher’s underrated classic, Zodiac (2007). There is an artistic precision to every moment, as it feels like even the smallest choices are deliberate and filled with meaning. Subsequently, Sorkin keeps his recreation of the late 1960s wonderfully grounded, avoiding the cliches we often see from films set in this period.
This isn’t to say that Sorkin eliminates the analysis of the time period. In fact, the meat of the narrative is entirely centred on examining many facets of the 1960s counterculture. Even though the trial itself was purely about protesting the Vietnam War, Sorkin smartly displays how this one event was a microcosm of all of the social changes demanded by the people. Not many films manage to cover this much ground when examining the counterculture, but Sorkin seamlessly put it all together and makes it look easy. Additionally, It’s rare for dense social analysis to be the basis of exciting and horrifying sequences, but Sorkin successfully pulls it off. In many ways, the nerve-wracking social injustices and heart-pumping calls to action can be seen as allegorical to things happening today.
The multi-dimensional thematics aren’t lost on the cast, as they are clearly putting their all into their performances. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong do great work as Abbe Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, successfully conveying the need for social revolution while also balancing much of the film’s comedy. Eddie Redmayne does wonderfully understated work as Tom Hayden, expertly shouldering the dramatic weight. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance are phenomenal as two like-minded lawyers only separated by the job they are given. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brings his charm to Bobby Seale and adds extra layers of social commentary, but he is sadly kept to the sidelines as the narrative unfolds. Subsequently, much of cast does amazing work, but not everyone is given a fair share of development. At the very least we are given enough to understand what the characters think and feel.
When done right, a courtroom drama can make the viewer think about the world around them, as well as think about their own actions. In the very best of cases, the film itself can become as historically significant as the story it tells. We’ll have to wait and see if The Trial of the Chicago 7 becomes as important as 12 Angry Men (1957) or Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), but for right now it’s an ambitious and intelligent film that feels like required viewing. Ultimately, it tells a fascinating story about those who want the truth doing battle with those who can’t handle the truth.
Best way to watch it: With a thesaurus and legal textbook next to you.