A rare celebrity screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin is known for certain trademarks: the walk-and-talk, the breathless dialogue, crescendos of feeling. You know the drill: Martin Sheen quotes the bible, an orchestra swells and then we cry.
But the writer hasn’t given us that ultra-satisfying, sweeping Sorkin package much since “The West Wing” ended. His creative juices have instead been drawn to cold, strategic figures: Mark Zuckerberg (“The Social Network”), Steve Jobs (“Steve Jobs”) and celebrity poker organizer Molly Bloom (“Molly’s Game”).
But the ’60s activists of “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Sorkin’s best film work since “The Social Network,” overflow with passion, charm and counter-cultural hutzpah as they battle the US government, which claims they incited the 1968 anti-Vietnam War riots in Chicago.
That septet — take a breath! — is made up of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). An eighth man, Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was also charged, but was only in Chicago for four hours.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass, Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden and Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”Netflix
The major actors playing these underdogs are scrappy as the Hulk. Adding to their prodigious star power, Mark Rylance takes on the role of their indefatigable lawyer, William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the mixed-up prosecutor, Michael Keaton is the former attorney general and an untethered Frank Langella plays the judge.
I’ve used up half my word count with the cast list, but it really is a staggering, uniformly excellent ensemble that humbly sets aside ego — not to mention many Oscars and Tonys — to coalesce into one punchy unit. Weirdly, almost half of ‘em are Brits.
One Englishman has the film’s most transformative performance: Baron Cohen as the wise-ass, authority-hating Hoffman. After this, Borat, Ali G, Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd” and myriad other humongous roles, I’ve forgotten what the real Baron Cohen sounds and behaves like. As Kunstler, Rylance, one of theater’s best working actors, has the frame of a Mini Cooper and the engine of a Hummer.
Courtroom scenes are a pain to write, because avoiding cliches is like hiding from oxygen. You can’t really reconceive the word “Objection!” Looking back, you’ll realize you cared a lot more about Ally McBeal’s personal life than her litigation prowess.
However, Sorkin, who’s unmatched in his ability to write debates and speeches, manages to freshen up those old benches, robes and gavels. Recalling Mark Zuckerberg’s depositions in “The Social Network,” the writer-director uses the courtroom to tell the story of the seven men, and their testimony turns into quick-cut, driven narration.
Beyond their fight against the government — that the Chicago PD, not the Chicago 7, started the riots — their internal spats are fiercely relevant. Hoffman, for instance, promotes rowdy disruption to enact change. Hayden, the most buttoned-up of the lot, trades instead in diplomacy. “I don’t have time for a cultural revolution,” he says. “It distracts from the real revolution.”
After “Molly’s Game” in 2017, I thought Sorkin’s writing was best served by directors who were, um, not him. His flair with words, at the time, did not translate into a flair for cameras. But the cinematography and editing in “Chicago 7” are a huge step up amd match perfectly with his Usain Bolt verbal pacing. He now has a confident command of viewers’ emotions.
You’ll find that out in the film’s last — and best — moment, which belongs to Redmayne. Is it sentimental? You betcha. But it sure takes you back to the TV magic of President Bartlett.
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