Sorkin’s latest brings together an ensemble of sterling character actors to chronicle a crucial but strange moment in countercultural history. The Chicago Seven were an amalgam of political activists from various groups who had participated in the 1968 protests, including the student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the radical pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and the anarchic “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was initially an eighth defendant, but his case was eventually severed from the trial. Even though many of them barely knew one another, they were charged by the Nixon administration with conspiracy and incitement to riot. They were presented to the public as a grab bag of undesirables, all intent on disrespecting authority and their country in their own ways.
Sorkin is, of course, quite adept at courtroom dramas. He made his name writing A Few Good Men (first the stage play, then the 1992 film), which features what might be the most famous cross-examination scene of all time. His recent Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird centers on the rape case that Atticus Finch is fighting in court. But unlike these works, The Trial of the Chicago 7 portrays little concrete legal maneuvering, given both the absurdity of the charges and the publicity-hungry nature of some of the defendants. This is a proceeding where, at one point, Hoffman and Rubin show up wearing judges’ robes and, when commanded to take them off, reveal police costumes underneath; it’s one where the presiding judge (a deliciously grumpy Frank Langella) was so biased against the accused that he buried them in hundreds of charges of contempt of court.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is something of a departure for Sorkin, who often indulges in misty-eyed idealism for American institutions. I enjoyed The West Wing as much as the next person, but Sorkin seems to know that this isn’t the time for visuals of flags flapping in the wind set to a patriotic trumpet score. Instead, through flashback, Sorkin focuses on grimmer imagery—such as Chicago cops quietly putting their badges in their pockets before they prepare to charge, or blood flying as Hayden’s best friend, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), is clubbed over the head without warning. Sorkin is fond of flashbacks, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 flits forward and backward in time with practiced ease, revisiting the events of the protests bit by bit as the trial drags on.