It would be easy to forget the Oscars are still going ahead this year, despite the best efforts of coronavirus and Godzilla vs. Kong. Currently trailing Nomadland in the Best Picture race, The Trial of the Chicago 7 recounts the case of the anti-Vietnam War protestors accused of starting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Aaron Sorkin is no stranger to a courtroom (that’s not an accusation) and is superb at structuring proceedings and timing flashbacks, saving the riot itself for the climactic moments of the trial. The film displays all his usual hallmarks: fast-paced dialogue, semantic plot points and cringey crescendos. The only one missing is mansplaining and that’s because there aren’t really any women in it. Sparks fly between Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eddie Redmayne, all brilliant even if Sacha Baron Cohen’s Chicago accent sounds more like a Boston Borat.
The flip side of Sorkin’s talent for communicating political ideas in such an entertaining way is that he sometimes flattens the complexity of such matters, a reductive effect that only seems to be exacerbated under his own direction. Here he indulges caricatures which are fun to watch until they rub up against reality. The decision to model Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Cohen and Jeremy Strong) on Cheech and Chong is funny in the courtroom scenes, but comes across as glib when the police start battering students.
At its best though, this is an eminently watchable drama (especially compared to the car crash that was The People v. O. J. Simpson or Sorkin’s own Molly’s Game) that mirrors our time of political division, police brutality and systemic racism. It feels particularly pertinent watching it in the UK the week in which police were cleared of using violence against protestors at the vigil for Sarah Everard, who was murdered by a policeman only to have Boris Johnson announce plans for undercover cops to patrol nightclubs. The movie also questions the ethics of their deployment.
This yields an imperfect yet informative picture about standing up to aggressive authority, and those who would value statues and flags over human lives.