The prospect of Aaron Sorkin creating a new courtroom drama is so tantalizing it borders on the pornographic. No Hollywood writer is better suited to cross-talk than the man who wrote A Few Good Men nearly 30 years ago, who makes comebacks land like roundhouse blows and cross-examinations feel like car chases. Sorkin, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for The Social Network, writes scripts that—despite the verbosity and condescension displayed by his characters—make us root for the good guys. He scripts a magnificent, writerly wish: where the person with right of way knows also the right thing to say.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7, released in US theatres this September and across Netflix screens on 16 October, is based on events that are as Sorkin as can be. An infamous 1968 trial where those protesting the Vietnam War were accused of starting a riot against the Chicago police department, the raw material feels too cinematic in its pure, uncut form. A couple of irreverent defendants, for instance, actually showed up in court wearing robes to mock the judge, and, when ordered to remove them, turned out to have Chicago police uniforms underneath. It takes truly finessed screenwriting to make flourishes like these work as a whole, instead of a film that feels like a highlights package.
Written and directed by Sorkin, the film—about police brutality, a vengeful legal system, and the fault lines dividing those fighting an oppressive government—is true both to its time and to our current moment. The parallels are hard to shake off, and these idealistic heroes inspire us in different and unexpected ways.
The trial technically included eight defendants, but Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panther party, did not have a lawyer present, and after being beaten and tied up for contempt of court, had his ordeal declared a mistrial. When Seale (played by a fantastic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) sits gagged in the courtroom, he is asked if he can breathe. The other defendants, appalled, decide not to rise for the odious judge. One, however—who got a haircut to look more presentable in court—forgets and gets to his feet. Respect can be a reflex.
Protesters come in all shades. The one with the haircut is Tom Hayden, eager to present a politically acceptable face in order to win votes. The ones with the costumes in court are frequently stoned activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Seale, a Panther who doesn’t know how to use a gun, has been bundled into this group for optics—to make a jury assume these people united against war are actually dangerous—while two relatively unimportant young protesters were added to the list simply to be struck off it later. “This is the Academy Awards of protests,” says one of them. “And it’s an honour just to be nominated.”
One of the seven is David Dellinger, a radical pacifist committed to the mission of non-violence, but his lawyer—disgusted by the fact that this “conscientious objector” sat out World War II—declares a desire to punch him in the face. These are not people, in short, who would conventionally belong to the same side, yet share the same trenches, battling out of a sense of humanity and greater responsibility. None may be saints, but all of them are fighting sinners.
The ensemble is tremendous. Frank Langella is exasperatingly superb as the judge, Eddie Redmayne is powerful and tightly coiled as Hayden, Jeremy Strong has a ball as the freewheeling Rubin, and Mark Rylance brings a complex weariness to his weed-smoking lawyer. Michael Keaton shows up, briefly and unforgettably, as the former attorney general of the US. The most compelling of the lot—armed with the finest lines—is Sacha Baron Cohen as the shaggy-haired Hoffman, reaching out to college crowds as a reactionary stand-up comedian in a Stars-and-Stripes shirt, using wit both to soften and sharpen his verbal blows.
What well-chosen verbs they are. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 could justly be described as 2 hours of men talking, but Sorkin lays the punchlines out like a prizefighter, making this Netflix film feel larger than life through dialogue alone. The characters speak of heavy “ideas transported across state lines” but Sorkin—a director who prefers words to visuals, cutting from argument to argument, metaphor to metaphor—makes sure those ideas also use great lines. At one point Rubin says, casually and exquisitely: “You have posed that question in the form of a lie.” The Trial Of The Chicago Seven sings. It could almost be a musical. Maybe one day it will be.
It would be beautiful even if it wasn’t as frighteningly relevant. In a comic moment, Allen Ginsberg, the great beat poet, leads the protest chanting “Om” into a megaphone, eventually described by the police as “a war chant”. Later, the prosecution sets about determinedly trying to prove a conspiracy among the defendants. Om as a war chant? A court actually eager to declare a premeditated act of violence a conspiracy? Someone ought to send Sorkin our Supreme Court’s recent landmark verdict—you know, the one about landmarks.
The writer is known for the “walk the talk” sequence, where characters too busy to slow down stroll through corridors, trading barbs and epiphanies at samurai speed. Sorkin began this with his endearing first series, Sports Night, and perfected it in the iconic The West Wing, where staffers hurtled around the White House. Those signature sequences show up even in this court-contained film, and during one of them, a character manages to catch an egg hurled at him. It is a miraculous bit of chance, yet no more magical than plucking a brilliant retort from thin air. These heroes walk the walk, and talk the talk.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.