Aaron Sorkin’s writing is, at both its best and worst, a strong brew. His first feature screenplay, A Few Good Men, and his subsequent show-running of TV’s The West Wing made him among the few American screenwriters to forge a style that could perhaps be called iconic if one was feeling bold enough. That style is one where loquacious people of staggering intellect verbally spar over their opposing moral viewpoints. Basically, really smart people argue in deeply entertaining fashion.
When it works, Sorkin is a virtuoso, bringing Shakespearean levels of dramatic gravitas to even the most lizard-like human, such as Mark Zuckerberg. Other times (most recently in his HBO drama The Newsroom), Sorkin can feel, well, completely insufferable. Retroactively inserting his dialogue into tumultuous historical events, he can seem smug winking at the audience with years of hindsight. Think of that scene from Titanic where Billy Zane says, “Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing.” Har har. Boy, was he wrong!
Sorkin’s latest screenplay also comes alongside his second time in the director’s chair with The Trial of the Chicago 7, which hits Netflix on Friday. With a sweet budget, an impressive ensemble of actors and Sorkin’s directorial influence, Trial gives audiences Sorkin untethered — the centrist / liberal didacticism is on full display here, and the movie pulls a few too many stops to let the audience know that this trial from 1968 is incredibly relevant to 2020 America just in case they didn’t notice. However, for all its faults, this is a Sorkin jam through and through; the courtroom drama is a natural showcase for his grand dialogue-driven debates and Trial features some of his best.
If you, like me, have some regrettable gaps in your knowledge of American history, you might not be aware of what the film’s title is referring to, in which eight Vietnam protestors were charged with an array of felonies after the riots that took place outside Chicago’s Democratic National Convention in 1968. The ensuing trial has largely been described as a “circus,” particularly thanks to two far-left counterculture figures Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (respectively played here by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong) and their constant refusal to take the courtroom setting seriously; they even went so far as to show up wearing police uniforms at one point. The eighth member was Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose case was dismissed after the judge had him bound and gagged in the middle of the hearing.
Cohen and Strong appear to be the two big Oscar hopefuls of the cast here, and I say big because wow … are these a pair of broad performances. Cohen, possibly because he’s used to that mode, fares the best — nailing his role as the class clown with a droll wit and, when Hoffman is eventually brought to the witness stand in a crucial sequence, pulling off an unexpected bit of pathos and self-awareness as well. Eddie Redmayne, as soft-spoken activist Tom Hayden (charged with directly inciting the riot during an enraged speech), is among the most restrained in the ensemble. Surprising, too, after a string of embarrassingly self-conscious performances dating all the way back to 2014’s The Theory of Everything. Hayden’s characterization lends some much-needed balance to the film’s more cartoonish moments.
Speaking of cartoonish, Strong and Frank Langella (two fantastic actors in their own right) nearly derail entire sequences with their characters. Strong seems to be channeling the teacher from Beavis & Butthead here — employing a spacey, slow-speaking hippie accent that starts out grating and only gets worse. As written, Rubin does have nuance, but all of that is drowned out by a performance devoid of it. Langella is a one-note caricature as the eeeeeeeevil Judge Julius Hoffman (who, by all accounts, was indeed an evil shitbag but perhaps just with one “e” and not eight). During literally every moment he’s onscreen, Julius Hoffman makes the most inhuman and cruel decision, and neither Langella nor Sorkin can find a way to make the character a dynamic presence during any of those moments. I suppose one could be charitable and argue that the mundanity of his evil is what makes him more scary … yada, yada, yada, but his corruption — regardless of how real it was — doesn’t make for a compelling villain.
Far more successful are the two attorneys: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosecutor and Mark Rylance’s defender. At opposing sides, they still sympathize with the trial’s defendants, people unfairly set up by a conservative system in need of faces to paint as the “radical left.” Sound familiar? Well, if it doesn’t, Sorkin will absolutely make sure that even the biggest dum-dums in the audience will be able to draw a line between these events and current corruption in the White House.
Trial is littered with moments where characters say things more or less along the lines of “This will alter the course of America!” and “No administration should ever demonize protestors again!” While this might just be my own cynicism and weariness from living in these times, it’s hard not to groan and wish Sorkin could let the parallels speak for themselves. It’s simply an impulse Sorkin has never been able to resist; he needs to let you know that he’s always been on the right side of history, damnit!
And yet just like the characters, for every cringe-inducing bit where Sorkin threatens to break the fourth wall with his hindsight, we’re treated to a showstopping courtroom soliloquy from some of today’s finest working actors. Much of them are, as expected from a pro like Sorkin, impeccably written and as invigorating as any million-dollar action sequence. Who doesn’t want to watch Eddie Redmayne deliver a thundering put-down to a smarmy, racist judge? Or Joseph Gordon-Levitt exchanging fiery dialogue with a treasure like Mark Rylance? Well, no one, of course.