'The Trial of the Chicago 7' Review: The Apex of Aaron Sorkin's Powers

Courtroom dramas can be hit and miss. But there’s something special about one from The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Long before he became a director, Sorkin served as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive screenwriters. Now the man who wrote 1992 hit A Few Good Men brings fans Netflix legal drama — and Oscar nominee — The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Aaron Sorkin distills his past movies into a single cinematic experience

The film follows a real-life group of Vietnam War protestors who find themselves on trial for allegedly inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Although the movie’s gallery of characters is initially overwhelming, Sorkin manages to strike the right balance. After all, the writer-director has plenty of experience juggling ensemble casts.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is only his second directorial effort, following 2017’s Molly’s Game. And yet, his latest movie feels like the project his writing and directing career has been building to all along. Like his directorial debut, there’s an air of biopic to The Trial of the Chicago 7. And yet, the courtroom scenes evoke the intensity of his screenwriting debut, A Few Good Men.

In addition, Sorkin breezes through a complex series of events through his signature storytelling magic. Much like his Oscar-winning work on The Social Network or the more recent Steve Jobs, The Trial of the Chicago 7 takes advantage of rapid cross-cutting, Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score, and real-life footage to heighten the tension and sharpen Sorkin’s own crackling dialogue.

Sacha Baron Cohen landed an Oscar nod for his role as Abbie Hoffman

So given Sorkin’s experience and industry standing, it’s no surprise The Trial of the Chicago 7 found itself with six nominations at the 2021 Oscars, including Best Picture. Still, perhaps the biggest shock was that Sacha Baron Cohen earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He’s also up for his adapted screenplay for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Several performers in The Trial of the Chicago 7  — including Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance — stand out. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (HBO’s Watchmen) too could have easily landed a nod. The same goes for Michael Keaton, whose brief but crucial role feels akin to Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated turn in A Few Good Men. After all, the movie is a true ensemble.

In the end, Baron Cohen’s role as activist Abbie Hoffman makes sense for a nod. The character has showboat-y energy that gives Baron Cohen plenty of flashy material to work with. Likewise, his interactions — mostly with Redmayne’s Tom Hayden — reveal a more dynamic side. Even if Baron Cohen isn’t the undisputed best performance, it might be the movie’s most quintessential.

Could ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ win Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars?

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of eight films nominated for the top prize at the 2021 Oscars. But while it has a solid chance at winning, it’s far from a lock. Following their Golden Globe wins, Nomadland and Minari perhaps pose the closest competition. But to Sorkin’s credit, he highlights how directly the story of the Chicago Seven speaks to the current political landscape.

While it doesn’t break new ground, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a compelling watch. Filled with stirring moments, strong performances, and a filmmaker in total control, it’s a classical story imbued with Sorkin’s flair. Moreover, the movie reveals that — while today’s protestors have other causes in mind — the struggle between the establishment and its people rages on.

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