The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama where no one—neither the characters, nor the viewers—expects that justice will be done. When the defendants take their seats at the start of Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix film, the audience already knows that the charges against them are ludicrous and the result of a political vendetta. The opening scene shows Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell (played by John Doman), ordering the prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to get convictions against protesters from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, no matter how far he has to stretch the law.
As the writer and director, Sorkin is telling the right story for the right moment. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is debuting less than a month before Election Day, amid complaints that President Donald Trump’s Justice Department has been deployed as a political tool. The historical drama depicts how a famous protest turned into a bloody police riot, imagery that resonates all the more viscerally after a summer full of headlines and videos underlining the pervasiveness of police brutality in America. Despite its period setting, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a timely and timeless message: that Americans can’t always count on their leaders to pursue the noble aims of truth and liberty.
Sorkin’s latest brings together an ensemble of sterling character actors to chronicle a crucial but strange moment in countercultural history. The Chicago Seven were an amalgam of political activists from various groups who had participated in the 1968 protests, including the student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the radical pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and the anarchic “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was initially an eighth defendant, but his case was eventually severed from the trial. Even though many of them barely knew one another, they were charged by the Nixon administration with conspiracy and incitement to riot. They were presented to the public as a grab bag of undesirables, all intent on disrespecting authority and their country in their own ways.
Sorkin is, of course, quite adept at courtroom dramas. He made his name writing A Few Good Men (first the stage play, then the 1992 film), which features what might be the most famous cross-examination scene of all time. His recent Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird centers on the rape case that Atticus Finch is fighting in court. But unlike these works, The Trial of the Chicago 7 portrays little concrete legal maneuvering, given both the absurdity of the charges and the publicity-hungry nature of some of the defendants. This is a proceeding where, at one point, Hoffman and Rubin show up wearing judges’ robes and, when commanded to take them off, reveal police costumes underneath; it’s one where the presiding judge (a deliciously grumpy Frank Langella) was so biased against the accused that he buried them in hundreds of charges of contempt of court.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is something of a departure for Sorkin, who often indulges in misty-eyed idealism for American institutions. I enjoyed The West Wing as much as the next person, but Sorkin seems to know that this isn’t the time for visuals of flags flapping in the wind set to a patriotic trumpet score. Instead, through flashback, Sorkin focuses on grimmer imagery—such as Chicago cops quietly putting their badges in their pockets before they prepare to charge, or blood flying as Hayden’s best friend, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), is clubbed over the head without warning. Sorkin is fond of flashbacks, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 flits forward and backward in time with practiced ease, revisiting the events of the protests bit by bit as the trial drags on.
Though the audience knows from the start that the outcome won’t be unfair, the film is still a lively watch. Sorkin threads in a story of community being built out of different strains of radicalism, particularly relishing the dynamic between the inherently comic Hoffman and the more po-faced Hayden. Cohen and Strong have the most fun with their roles, leaning into their exaggerated accents and bouffant wigs, while heavyweights including Mark Rylance (as the defense lawyer William Kunstler) and Michael Keaton (as the former Attorney General Ramsey Clark) swoop in for big scenes tailored for awards attention.
Sorkin’s slickness defines him as a storyteller. His dialogue can bounce from character to character while always sounding like it’s coming from one person; at this point, viewers probably know whether they love or hate his style. Sorkin’s best scripts stage battles of ego and will in high-stakes worlds—think of The Social Network (the internet), Moneyball (baseball), and his thrilling but exhausting directorial debut, Molly’s Game (illegal gambling). In Chicago 7, I was sometimes irked by the smooth assurance of his exposition, and the way every cross-examination ends with a punch line. The late 1960s was a harsh, destabilizing time for the country, and Sorkin nearly turns it into a droll diorama. But by the end, I had given myself over to the Hollywood veneer. Chicago 7 is a particularly shiny rendering of history, but Sorkin wisely places the focus on America’s failings, even as he celebrates the people striving to fix them.