Movie Review: Trail of the Chicago 7 - A tense courtroom drama reduced to hinting at a larger story

Aaron Sorkin knows how to tell a complex story in a short amount of time. From the title alone, the Trial of the Chicago 7 has a lot of threads to get through, which inevitably means dialogue will be quick, sharp, and intense. It’s a testament to his writing that he manages to tell this story of eight men on trial for protests and riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1969 with coherence and ease. However, Trial of the Chicago 7 feels less than complete as it loses track of its many characters while rushing toward an outcome.

While this is an often absorbing recollection of harrowing events, Sorkin meshes together fragments of the trial, which only scrapes the surface of these men's lives and misses out on building to an emotional crescendo by the final act.

In August 1968, eight individuals were preparing to lead protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago: Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) from the Youth International Party; Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty). These men planned and executed protests that turned incredibly violent, and were arrested and charged with supposedly inciting the riots. The final defendant in the trial, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was the national chairman of the Black Panther Party at the time of the protests and allegedly wasn't even present in Chicago.

The story unfolds interweaving the planning of the peaceful protests alongside the lengthy court proceedings. Bobby Seale, however, was only in Chicago for four hours, and he maintains his involvement in these proceedings is exploitative. Even those around him can acknowledge the publicity stunt that's motivated by the government and further reinforced by the forcefully prejudicial Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Undercover local police testify against the seven (eight), and the Attorney General at the time of the riots, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), is also brought in as a star witness. But the system is broken and the bias of the incompetent Judge Hoffman becomes more glaringly obvious as the trial drags out over months. What unfolds is a battle between peaceful demonstration and institutional injustice as the defendants, except for Bobby whose lawyer is absent from the courtroom, trust in their attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, brilliant) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) to unveil the truth of the case.

Indeed, the film labors under the weight of too many characters as there isn't enough time to access the inner lives of any single person. While each individual is humanized by the powerful performances of the ensemble cast, the screenplay could've stripped away repetitive beats in the courtroom and given viewers a chance to know these men on a more intimate level. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman, for example, is a complex figure who performs a stand-up routine that narrates the proceedings, giving us a set-up of what is to come without adding to his character's complexity as a public figure. Similarly, Bobby Seale’s experiences in and out of the courtroom are worthy of a standalone film to explore the traumatic indifference he experiences from the system. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s performance is heart-wrenching as he struggles to defend himself against the deliberately discriminatory judge Hoffman, and once his story is over, his character is forgotten.

By the final act, it's clear that this feature, already sitting at over two hours, would have benefited from being a limited series. The recent Hulu show Miss America, with its all-star cast, confidently demonstrated how a limited series can give characters both depth and context in a politicized world. Sorkin’s script loses its emotional core because it sweeps past insight for theatrics in stagey courtroom scenes. It becomes an interpretation of events in fast forward, which is clear from the opening scene that touches upon each of the eight defendants in the trial at a lightning pace before thrusting us into the courtroom.

Of course, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is also a commendable achievement by a writer/director who has always been confident tackling large stories and reducing them to a consumable, tight feature-length production. His unique style is underscored by the verbal tennis matches, with each actor serving up confidently executed dialogue without skipping a beat. The direction works well to highlight each defendant early on, but by the final act, the film deliberately focuses on Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, leaving the rest behind. The story might've unfolded differently by following these two men more distinctly early on, thereby giving us more access to their lives and developing an emotional connection to their stories. After all, in these courtroom scenes, it's just as important to hear what these men have to say as it is to understand why they are saying it.

If an emotional core is missing from a film, it can leave a dry taste in the mouth. By the end of Trial of the Chicago 7, it seemed that most characters had faded into the background, and storyline threads were neglected in favor of reaching a climactic moment. For a story this intricate, the ending didn't satisfy an understanding of the internal battles each man faced during this time. It felt rushed and emotionally distanced. In the sinking hole that is a Netflix library, this is just another courtroom drama.