The Trial of the Chicago 7 (aka "Protest the Right Way")
I know it feels like movies are made as a result of what is going on around us at a particular moment in time, but, as we often talk about on The Greatest Movie of All-Time Podcast, happy accidents often happen on the way to successful movies. Similarly, I don't think that Aaron Sorkin decided to write and direct a movie about protesting, police brutality, civil rights, or the power of an institution rigged against you knowing what was going to happen this year, but it certainly fits into the landscape that 2020 has been so far.
In a year that has been often unfavorably compared to the landmark 1968 by several people who went through that at the time, I find that this invariably is a movie that genuinely fits the time in which it is made. Ultimately, the themes of revolution, change, pushing for a better world that works for everyone and is more inclusive is given a more universal feel and backdrop to remind us all that this isn't a new problem, and we're definitely not going to solve the problems of 2020 overnight. It is a continuing battle that we must wage on complacency in order to achieve a better tomorrow.
From famed Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer, Aaron Sorkin, who again doubles up his duties for this film as its Director (his second time in the chair after Molly's Game), The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a fun, thought-provoking, likely awards and nominations generating film that will a appeal to a mass audience.
This is Aaron Sorkin's second time behind the camera, and I believe most can tell that this does not come as naturally for him as writing has. While there is nothing wrong with any of the choices Sorkin made, I never really felt as though his direction brought much more to the film than his writing (and instruction of how to act that writing) did. Sorkin has famously made instructions to actors taking parts in his scripts of how to deliver his dialogue, and that is still quite evident here as the pithy lines are delivered to perfection and with the right pacing we have come to know Sorkin for. However, there is nothing stylistically that sets this apart from an episode of the Newsroom or the West Wing as opposed to his most famous collaboration with David Fincher on The Social Network where each got to make their marks.
I will say that, being someone who was generally unaware of this story going in, I did enjoy how the movie fills you in on the story over the course of the movie with a blend of the real historic shots in several key moments to give full impact even if we likely could have been given more of the footage from the actual riots. Moreover, because of that choice, this movie played out more for me like an actual trial as if I were part of the jury (the whole world is watching), and revealed the key elements as the trial unfolded. I do have to give credit here as this movie is likely to be the defining narrative for most millennials that have no idea about this event, and blending the dramatic with the actual footage gives a certain level of perspective that I wouldn't have received if this had been a normal historical events movie.
Can we please bury the narrative that Sasha Baron Cohen is not a great actor. I know that it's easy to look at something like Borat (of which the sequel is debuting on Prime very soon), and think that he is just some lunatic. Yet, if you look at what he does in movies like those, you will see the genius he has in absolutely picking apart certain lionized narratives that Americans often hold about themselves.
While this movie is most certainly not Borat, Cohen is again an absolute marvel, and it truly makes me regretful that we didn't get his version of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (he was attached, then withdrew and was replaced by Rami Malek). His turn as Abbie Hoffman is both jester, poet, and sentimentalist, and the writing of his character between the outbursts in Court to his passion in the park and the streets to his final level of vulnerability in the climactic sequence between himself and Eddie Redmayne's Tom Hayden.
As for Redmayne, I personally thought he was out-acted in every scene he was a part of, and I really don't understand why he's being pushed as a star. He seems to fade out in every appearance I see him in.
Other notable performances: Frank Langella is one of my favorite character actors of the past decade and a half, and always seems to be charismatic and charming despite his less than wholesome characters. His performance as Judge Julius Hoffman is absolutely wonderful as his antagonistic nature from the bench serves as the great foil in this movie that almost everything else in the trial is built on. Moreover, another favorite character actor of mine is Oscar-winner, Mark Rylance, whose performance as Attorney William Kunstler is pitch perfect to undermine the true injustice of Judge Hoffman at every turn as well as serve as the audience's mouthpiece of exasperation throughout the movie no better epitomized than every time he has to remind Judge Hoffman that Bobby Seale has no Attorney.
Another highlight in what might be the odds on favorite right now for the SAG Ensemble Award was the brilliant cameo of Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark. His smarmy-ness is charming, his wit and rebellion engaging, and his brief appearance perfection. Honestly, I could rewatch his two or three scenes on a loop for how awesome it really was.
Before this goes on to long, a few other quick notes that I wish I could highlight more: Yaya Abdul-Mateen II is a budding star who plays his part so perfectly that his missing presence from the concluding third of the film is clearly felt. Alex Sharp plays this type of character so well, and I really hope to see him in more parts like this because he could really have a good career if he is willing to do things that fit him like this. John Carroll Lynch has led a good career as one of the leading candidates as a "that guy from that movie", but the scene where he finally explodes at the Judge and is so emotionally wrought that his core value of non-violence is shattered in a brief fury is so heart-breaking on multiple levels that you can't help but feel a bit shell-shocked in that moment. In addition, I just wish Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in more movies. I absolutely love seeing him in things, and he just always has a calm coolness that seems to fit whatever he is playing for me. How he is not a bigger star is beyond me. Finally, recent Emmy-winning actor, Jeremy Strong gives a very understated and hilarious turn as Jerry Rubin. Personally, I love and root for Kendall Roy, but Strong's scene against Joseph Gordon-Levitt where he is a jilted lover asking about the undercover FBI agent who scorned him is just pure comedy gold in the middle of this movie.
As I have mentioned already many times in this review, the writing and structure are the biggest elements of this movie. In a cinematic era more defined currently by great Directors and Writers, Sorkin stands out as chief among writers who knows how to just write the crap of out dialogue. As someone who has dabbled at screenwriting himself and constantly feels inadequate at dialogue, watching Sorkin written projects leaving me in absolute awe with the way he can make figures talk.
I don't want to hear about how no one talks like he writes or that this is often too high-minded. To borrow a phrase: Malarkey! I don't honestly care. Of course no one talks like this because most don't hold the ability to phrase things in such moving ways. That's why we need to appreciate when someone can brilliantly string together such moving thoughts and soaring rhetoric. I also soundly reject the notion that Sorkin doesn't live in reality with his subjects who often default to a sense of eternal optimism. Why do we only need to live in the gritty realism of anti-heroes and dark complicated figures. While this story is based on a historical event, the narrative of the event is one of idealism. Why do we feel that idealism is something to constantly be fought against or torn down. These are vehicles for escapism, are they not? Maybe I'm against the grain there, but that's where I want to be then.
For a movie that was clearly targeting awards-buzz, it clearly deserves it in my opinion. The final court scene as Redmayne reads the names literally moved me to tears (although, to be fair, I'm becoming much more sentimental as I get older). I believe this should be up for screenplay, several acting nominations (it unfortunately won't be able to nominate nearly the amount of actors it should from this), and obviously best picture. And, while I wouldn't put it as the best work of Sorkin's career, this is clearly one of the ten or so movies from 2020 that I feel a majority of people should see.