Frighteningly relevant, featuring terrific performances and dialogue that you can dance to, Netflix's The Trial of the Chicago 7 finds writer-director Aaron Sorkin in top form.
It tells the (highly dramatised) story of the seven men — each of whom was involved in a protest against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — who were arrested for conspiring to incite a riot. The men came from different backgrounds and belonged to separate organisations, but in the eyes of the prosecution (and the comically bigoted judge), they were all the same — members of the 'radical left'.
Watch the trailer of "The Trial of the Chicago 7" here
There was the hippie Abbie Hoffman and his cohort Jerry Rubin (played by the scraggly haired Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Scott). Then there was the politically astute Tom Hayden (an earnest Eddie Redmayne), the pacifist David Dellinger (John Carol Lynch) and the militant leader of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seal (Yahya Abdul Mateen II).
In the film's opening scene, it is made clear that the government has no case against the men, but intends to press charges anyway, because it feels threatened by them, and everything that they represent — progress, liberalism, and pride. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's morally conflicted assistant district attorney Richard Schultz is instructed to invoke the controversial Rap Brown Law, which is based on the idea that a person who crosses state lines with merely the 'intention' of participating in mischief can be prosecuted.
I had expected The Trial of the Chicago 7 to function as an allegory for law and order in the United States under the Trump administration, but imagine my surprise when I realised that it is basically a documentary about the Delhi Police's investigation of the February communal clashes in the Capital. Just like the Chicago seven, who arrived in the Windy City with the intention of holding a peaceful protest but were systematically devoured by the state machinery, dissenters like Umar Khalid have been indicted for inciting riots under the UAPA Act.
Unlike Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, a film that is set roughly around the same time and touches upon similar themes, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a movie about police brutality in which the verbal blows are more forceful than the physical ones.
It's a crowd-pleaser of the highest quality — propulsive, impassioned and well-intentioned. There's no denying that Sorkin is a cracking writer of dialogue, but he's just as capable at structuring his stories. Even though this is hardly a subtle film — in fact, on certain occasions it is childishly blunt — how Sorkin manages to go back-and-forth in time is rather graceful.
The 'riot' itself is staged thrillingly, lent authenticity by hundreds of extras and scored to Daniel Pemberton's rousing music, but it isn't nearly as pulse-pounding as an ideological confrontation between Hayden and Hoffman at the end of the film's second act.
This is where Sorkin thrives. This is where his script sings. As they argue about the importance of what they believe in — Hayden has a problem with Hoffman and his flower power movement becoming the face of progressive politics — they realise that they are, in fact, on the same team. It's a neat comment on the infighting that frequently plagues the left. It is also a showcase for the talents of Eddie Redmayne, who, in fairness, has an Oscar, and Sacha Baron Cohen, who is, let's be honest, best known for playing the buffoon Borat.
They're solid, but I hope that Mark Rylance's excellent work as defence attorney William Kunstler is recognised by the Academy. It's an old-school performance, peppered with hoorah moments and brimming with honesty.
Sorkin has written some of the best screenplays of all time, of that there can be no doubt. But his finest work in recent years — one that betrayed his centrist tendencies — was a letter of apology that he wrote to his daughter a day after Donald Trump was elected president. Things would never be the same again, he admitted. But, he wrote, "We'll fight… We do what we can to fight injustice anywhere we see it – whether it's writing a cheque or rolling up our sleeves… We fight for the first amendment and we fight mostly for equality – not for a guarantee of equal outcomes but for equal opportunities. We stand up."
But what Sorkin didn't mention was that he would also fight in the way that he knows best — through his art. It's so encouraging to see that the Trump years, which have been as horrific as everyone including Sorkin had predicted, haven't killed his spirit. Now is not the time for nuance, it's the time for films such as The Trial of the Chicago 7 — films that wear their heart, and their humanism, on their sleeves.