An undeniably prevalent, parallel snapshot to the onrush of political shitstorms which sent this country into a media tailspin, thanks to the aid of an incompetent administration’s handling of a global pandemic, and an uptick in the public exposure of police brutality at Black Lives Matter protests, the Aaron Sorkin helmed/scribed, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” has been in development for quite some time – Steven Spielberg originally attached to direct the project. While its testy outrage is, of course, timely and his film often expertly encapsulate the universal fire bringing out the activist burning inside all of us (those with a soul/conscience, anyway), Sorkin’s lack of experience behind the camera, and in the editing room, is often apparent during key moments and sequences. The plethora of great actors assembled do the best they can and bring their A-game (for the most part), but it seems like Sorkin is struggling to balance two distinct kinds of film: an enraged rallying call meant to shake audiences awake and a stay-at-home Academy voter’s favorite kind of cliché Oscar movie. You can make “Medium Cool” or you can make “The Post,” Sorkin’s efforts to spike a pinch of the former into the latter falls short.
Jumping around in time, not unlike Sorkin’s best script, “The Social Network,” ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’s” courtroom structure is missing both the orientation point and Greek chorus that served the former so effectively. Whereas the Facebook origins film delineated clear point of view distinctions and clearly established where all the different parties stood, ‘Trial’s’ first twenty minutes are deliberately chaotic. Adding a few verité touches, here and there, paired with some documentary footage, about all Sorkin does to add real-world agency is imitate the tactics of better filmmakers, aiming to present what is essentially a Hollywood biopic with an ensemble cast with a social urgency far better implemented into an artist like Spike Lee‘s joints. Much of the montage work in something like this year’s impassioned “Da Five Bloods,” for example, simply blows Sorkin’s attempts at capturing riotous social injustice out of the water.
These touches aside, in several ways Sorkin’s second feature is a lot less aesthetically flashy than his first movie, 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” where the more sensational genre aspects lent itself to an almost Scorsese-like, rags to riches tribal lure – a gleaming stylish path to the glitzy underbelly of a dark crime world. This time around, he’s made an extremely tame 2000’s Spielberg picture, so far as the overall story framework, the casting of actors like Mark Rylance and Joseph Gordon-Levitt only further ringing the similarities to movies like “Lincoln” or “Bride of Spies.” But, Sorkin lacks the directorial skill to match the historic sweep necessary to capture such a media spectacle, and – despite the play-like tendencies of his script-work – his lack of subtlety with actors, paired with clear inexperience of how to stitch the staging together in the editing room – compared to say a Spielberg, or a Fincher – becomes more glaring as the film moves along, various quick-cutting montages and emotionally charged outbursts landing with a lot less oomph than they would under the eye of a more seasoned filmmaker.
Rylance unquestionably steals the movie as the defendants’ empathetic legal counsel, on the flip side, Frank Langella’s incompetently racist judge character is about as one note as they get, and the film makes little use of the his talents outside the booming power of his voice (its also a tad distracting, given he’s played Richard Nixon before, and the former President is frequently referenced in the film). Sasha Baron Cohen is serviceable enough, delivering what the film needs him to at certain junctures, but he acts primarily as a soap box, framing device to throw ideas at the viewer during many of the cross-cut editing sequences, but essentially only acts as comic relief in the courthouse scenes until the second half of the film. When his character finally enters the fray to deliver his big dramatic moment (a showdown with Eddie Redmayne) it lands without much weight, a problem that, again, goes back to the movie often splitting its focus in half.
The first hour often focuses on the racial imbalance of our judicial system, the amazing Yahya Abul-Mateen II (“Watchmen“) playing Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who finds himself in contempt of court whenever he attempts to remind the judge that he is still lacking legal representation. This conflict drives the drama of much of the films first half, but resolves itself around the middle of the film, and is essentially not returned to, in favor of a puffy Hollywood ending. It also feels like there are almost a dozen historic foot-notes in slapped on the ending as expository wrap-up fashion, indicating how many of main players are far less emotionally developed than others. John Carroll Lynch (OMG its the Zodiac Killer! Right…?) delivers the goods in an outstanding character beat, but is left out of the closing sentiments. Who and what the film thinks is most worth talking about is never quite clear, Eddie Redmayne’s character taking over the film towards the conclusion, something that feels weirdly disingenuous now, given the actors recent display of privileged class ignorance and his awkward American accent.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is part raging political inferno, part faux-Spielberg fluff. Elements of both work, as they are effective formulas, tapping political history to better understand the present. Sorkin’s film feels timely, yet also unearned. A movie like “Bridge of Spies” is no masterpiece either, but, nonetheless, it almost snuck up on audiences – pundits previously writing it off as just future Dreamworks Oscar bait, but the slow unfurling of its relevant agenda actually built to the impact of its concluding footnotes. The story on screen was necessary to see, bettering the impact of the final paragraphs plastered on the screen. Sorkin’s latest cannot claim the same. It’s a picture that feels like its going through the motions so that it can impact you in as rousing a way possible, frequently ringing a lot less truthfully ardent than its sympathetic aims.