All rise. In the court of public opinion, Aaron Sorkin’s credentials waver between being the best screenwriter we have and an overly optimistic Liberal of a different time and place. The writer of The West Wing (1999-2006) continues to live within the reputation of that show. Despite sterling film work since, he has come to represent an aging idea of politically driven screenwriting. While the many online plaintiffs and reply-guys may suspect otherwise, Sorkin’s new work soars with more jagged bon mots and beautifully unwieldy dialogue than anyone else would dare to use. There is a place for every director, and Sorkin has never been more at home than in a courtroom.
If Sorkin is a great screenwriter, he is but a modest director. There are few stylistic flourishes to be found, little in the way of invention. His set is small and confining, largely the film takes place within a courtroom. The camera does not do very much. The whole exercise can sometimes feel like a ’90s courtroom teleplay, with all that implies. Alan Baumbarten returns after editing Molly’s Game (2017), trying to leverage the director’s acerbic style into his edits, which occasionally works, but sometimes produces some very curious results. The editing deserves its own trial. It all accumulates as a visually flat but textually rich play on screen.
The reason an audience must find the film is that it contains the year’s best ensemble. Leading the all-star cast, Sacha Baron Cohen takes an inspiring turn as a scene-stealing character actor. He is absolutely brilliant. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s role as famous civil rights activist and Black Panther member Bobby Seale puts the whole thing over, constantly being held in contempt of court, while grounding a deep emotional center everyone else can work off of. Several others are vaguely miscast or awkwardly costumed, but achieve a strong accumulated result. We like Jeremy Strong in everything, but he’s somewhat out of place. He catches an egg thrown at him and doesn’t know what to do with it in the movie, which is a metaphor for how he handles his part and his beard. Everyone involved is varying degrees of good to excellent. It truly feels like a group of A-rate actors putting their heart into a project and making it sing.
Originally, Sorkin approached the project in 2006, when it was being helmed by Spielberg. Sorkin remarked, “I said yes because it was Steven and he said there was a trial, so I thought courtroom and that was enough.” All Sorkin needed was a courtroom and he demonstrates that considerably well, fast-spoken legalese with a perspective being just the right fit for his style. After the critical success of Molly’s Game, the writer was given complete control of the long-gestating project, intermittently working it into a play, and then finally producing this result. Initially picked up by Paramount, the film was sold off to Netflix given the state of COVID-19, a great blessing that it can reach everyone from home, a film that fits a small screen just as well as a big one. There could never be a better time for such a portrait of litigious legal activism, as social upheaval is happening on a scale never seen before. There are movies that are right for the times and then there are movies that connect our times to the past. The Trial of the Chicago 7 gets to be both.
May the record reflect, Sorkin has returned, a writer of great moral aptitude, once again earning his plaudits through sharply worded character sketches that can only exist within the language of cinema. Nobody truly talks like his characters do. The thing is how they read on the screen. Where the film’s rousing politics and courtroom victories feel outmoded, they are also a hopeful return to the kind of mid-tier film we used to get, adult dramas that aspire to inform and inspire in equal measure. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a great legal drama that lives up to its pedigree. The motion that Sorkin overwrites his films into the ground has been overruled, on the grounds of a new verdict in the case, proposing Sorkin must be nominated for his new work. The critique is adjourned.