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Netflix’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a crowdpleaser: Review

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For a film about one of the most infamous trials in American history, centered around one of the most notorious police riots in American history, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 goes down easy.

Largely, that’s to its credit. The opening moments of Chicago 7 have the giddy energy of a heist flick, laying out in seven very efficient minutes the spirit of the times and introducing all eight future defendants as they prepare to protest the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The pace of the storytelling slows from there, as the film skips over the convention itself and into the start of the trial several months later. But the energy never flags, resulting in a movie that is by turns exhilarating, devastating, enraging, and inspiring, and above all, wildly entertaining.

Which, really, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to fans of Chicago 7 writer-director Aaron Sorkin. Of course the man behind films like A Few Good Men and The Social Network and shows like The West Wing is entirely in his element in the august halls of a courtroom where great men have gathered to engage in fiery verbal battles over truth and justice and freedom. Chicago 7 shines in rat-a-tat exchanges between principled geniuses at odds and icy put-downs of unworthy fools. There are wry jokes, impassioned speeches, cutesy banter about random trivia (in Sorkinland, even a bar meet-cute involves a surprisingly detailed history of the Tom Collins cocktail), and a screaming match so exquisitely arranged it plays like a symphony. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Chicago 7 and their lawyers — along with an eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, far left) — in court.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Chicago 7 and their lawyers — along with an eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, far left) — in court.

Image: NICO TAVERNISE / NETFLIX 

And Sorkin’s sprawling cast is up to the challenge of making his dialogue sing. Mark Rylance overcomes a truly unfortunate wig to command the room as William Kunstler, the shrewd and decent defense attorney for the Chicago 7. Sacha Baron Cohen is another obvious standout as Chicago 7 defendant Abbie Hoffman, a defiant hippie (or rather Yippie) whose jokey pothead persona belies a ferocious intellect and an earnest rage. He’s most often paired onscreen with fellow defendant and Yippie Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong as Abbie’s mellower, more doofily endearing complement. 

The movie is by turns exhilarating, devastating, enraging, and inspiring, and above all, wildly entertaining.

The pair of them are terrors in the courtroom, gleefully thumbing their noses at the spiteful Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) — to the extreme frustration of their co-defendant Tom Hayden (a blandly competent Eddie Redmayne), a more straight-laced sort who would like to keep his head down and play by the rules so he can go free and keep fighting the good fight, thank you very much.

At issue in court is whether the Chicago 7 conspired to incite violence at the protests around the convention. In the movie, as in real life, the charges are patently false, but the American government will do what it must to make them stick — including, in one of the film’s most disturbing through lines, trying Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, burning up the screen) as an eighth defendant despite the absence of his lawyer, and despite his protestations that he’d never even met the Chicago 7 until the indictment.

But in breaks from the trial, in defense strategy meetings at night, and in flashbacks to the protests themselves, the less clear-cut question that emerges is one of how a movement moves forward. Hoffman and Hayden share the common goal of ending the Vietnam War, but represent polar-opposite strategies for getting there, and their clashes echo the ones we’re still having today within our political parties and communities.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The defendants and their lawyers discuss strategy.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The defendants and their lawyers discuss strategy.

Image: Niko Tavernise / NETFLIX

For that matter, a lot of Chicago 7 feels like it could be about today. Though the film has been in the works for over a decade, it’s very much in sync with these times. You can see 2020 in the outrage of its characters and their supporters, and in their disgust and disillusionment with our criminal justice system. Chicago 7 never crosses over into truly uncomfortable territory, but for much of its run time it seems willing to pose complicated questions without easy answers, to embrace the contradictory emotions of uncertain times, to bear witness to the desperate grasping of a crumbling institution. 

Alas, that doesn’t last. As Chicago 7 builds toward its grand finale, it trades away those thorny ideas for a slick Hollywood ending. Right as it should have been going in for the kill, the movie instead gives itself over to schmaltzy formula. (This, too, is a Sorkin signature — from the wink to the iPod at the end of Steve Jobs to the friend request at the end of The Social Network, he seems unable to resist riding his sentimental streak just one bridge too far.) It’s not quite hoary enough to ruin everything that came before it, but it softens too many edges that should have been left jagged. 

Then again, jagged edges don’t go down smoothly. Chicago 7 is a crowdpleaser first and foremost, and in that regard it succeeds on almost every level: It’s a film to be watched and rewatched just for fun, or to serve as a jumping-off point for more serious exploration of what went down in Chicago that summer, or simply to be admired as a showcase of top-shelf acting and screenwriting. Just don’t expect it to be as revolutionary as some of those it calls its heroes.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming now on Netflix.

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