“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (US rated R)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Timing is everything!
After being delayed for more than a decade, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is finally here. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
The film is based on the infamous 1969 trial of seven defendants charged by the federal government with conspiracy and more, arising from the countercultural protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The trial transfixed the United States and sparked a conversation about mayhem intended to undermine the US government.
I’ll resist the urge to talk about the issues at the heart of the movie, except to say that it seems those problems are more prevalent, pervasive and difficult to address than at almost any time since the 1960s.
The path and timing of the film has been almost as arduous. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was completed in 2007, and Steven Spielberg was tapped to direct shortly after that. But after a while, it seemed this project would never get off the ground.
After getting it off the shelf last year, Paramount Pictures was set to release the film in theaters this year, with Sorkin himself directing. Then COVID happened.
So, what do you do with a major studio film when most theaters are shuttered? You go to Netflix, of course.
That may actually have been a blessing in disguise. This smart and completely engrossing drama likely would have struggled at the multiplex, especially against flicks that would be actively attempting to appeal to low-attention-span viewers.
Now, the rest of us get a mature picture that is fascinating and enthralling in how it captures the essence of turbulent 1960s America, and at the same time offers some of the best performances of the year.
Writer/Director Sorkin, who won an Oscar for his “The Social Network” screenplay and directed the fantastic “Molly’s Game” (2017), crafts a wonderfully paced film that effortlessly weaves back and forth between compelling court testimony, tense out-of-court discussions and flashbacks of the riots, including actual footage and photos.
Whether intentional or not, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” forgoes Sorkin trademarks like super-fast-paced walking and talking, à la his classic television series “The West Wing”. (While many loved that unique style, for me it always got a little annoying after a while.) Instead, we get to bask in the witty dialogue, sans the usual rapid-fire, rollercoaster-on-the-sea-during-a-hurricane effect.
That allows us to even more appreciate the unbelievable bounty that is this cast.
Sacha Baron Cohen – who has his new “Borat 2” coming out next week, just in time for the United States election – headlines some of the most celebrated actors today: Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”); two actors who just won Best Actor Emmys last month, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (for Limited Series “Watchmen”) and Jeremy Strong (for Best Drama “Succession”); multiple Tony Award winner Frank Langella; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a (creative arts) Emmy winner, in his own right; plus even the legendary Michael Keaton.
But even amidst all this greatness, there are still some standouts, especially Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, and also Langella as ridiculous Judge Julius Hoffman and Abdul-Mateen as Black Panther National Chairman Bobby Seale.
With a challenging year that so far has seen few memorable films and even fewer memorable performances, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” has come just in time.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.