A timely and intelligent courtroom drama: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” review

by Zach McGuckin 

Sometime in 1997, up-and-coming screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was having a meeting with John Wells, the respected filmmaker. The only problem was that Sorkin had not prepared any material to pitch to Wells and so, without any prior plan, Sorkins invented the idea of a television show following the White House staff. This show eventually became “The West Wing” and made Sorkin one of the most respected writers in television and film. From there he went on to write many critically acclaimed films such as “The Social Network” and “Moneyball.” He had his directorial debut in 2017 with “Molly’s Game” and he has escaped the dangers of a sophomore slump with his new film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” 

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows the court case against eight activists in the aftermath of a riot during the Democratic Party Convention. For anyone familiar with leftist politics in the 1960s, the major players here are no surprise. Leadership from the Black Panthers, Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society are all present here. These figures are all grounded by both wonderful writing and performances. I was particularly fond of Sacha Baron Cohen as the thoughtful yet crude Abbie Hoffman and Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, the activists’ judge.  

Courtroom dramas are well past the peak of their popularity, but this film still feels relevant in our current socioeconomic and political context. The murder of George Floyd happened during the creation of this film, and Sorkin said that the final cut was influenced by this event. The writing doesn’t shy away from exploring the complex political motives behind the actions of both the activists and the government. The parallels between the current Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-war movement of the 60s are also made apparent. 

The writing and performances here are incredible, but Sorkin still shows clearly that he is more of a writer than a director. Some visually impressive moments are present, particularly the opening sequence which introduces all the leads, but the film lacks many memorable shots or music choices. Part of this issue is simply genre trappings. The vast majority of the film takes place in the court room – not the most visually pleasing of places – so some more memorable shots would have been nice. This complaint remains a relatively minor one, though, and the audience will likely be so engrossed by what the film does well that the lack of stylistic visuals will go largely unnoticed. 

The only major gripe I have with the film is the historical inaccuracies. Some of these choices were made to create a greater sense of drama, but one is particularly frustrating. When discussing the murder of Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago Black Panther party, the movie implies that he had engaged police during a police raid. This claim isn’t factual: in reality, he was asleep when police shot him. This assertion doesn’t heighten the drama of the film because his death is only mentioned through dialogue. 

Overall, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of the greatest films of this year. Gripping, intelligent, relevant and tense, it deals with a specific and important moment of American history but draws parallels that run far beyond that moment. The stunning writing and performances outshine any of the film’s minor flaws, creating a piece so compelling, energetic and exciting that I’d consider it a must watch. 9/10 Pinecones. 

The “Trial of the Chicago 7” is now streaming on Netflix