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Nobody does legal drama like Aaron Sorkin, as moviegoers learned 28 years ago with A Few Good Men, which he wrote, and are about to be reminded by The Trial of the Chicago 7, which he wrote and directed, and which Netflix will release in select theaters on Friday en route to an Oct. 16 debut on the streaming platform.
The fact that Sorkin has been trying to get Chicago 7 made for 13 years and that the finished film was sold off by Paramount in the middle of the pandemic prompted some speculation that it must not be very good. But it turns out the opposite is true: it is not Nomadland, but it is in the top tier of 2020 movies that have already shown their cards — powerful and eerily timely in its depiction of tensions between cops and protesters, blacks and whites and free-speech advocates versus anti-free-speech authoritarians.
The film, of course, recounts the story of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), seven anti-war activists who led their respective movements to Chicago to protest the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, as well as that of Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — all eight of whom were charged in March 1969 by the new Nixon Administration with conspiring to cross state lines in order to incite a riot.
Chicago 7 — thanks to Sorkin’s skillfully-crafted script and Alan Baumgarten‘s smooth editing — deftly jumps back-and-forth in time to show what motivated these eight men to go to Chicago; what occurred when they were there; and what happened when they wound up on trial in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), defended by the eccentric William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), and prosecuted by Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), with a surprise witness in LBJ attorney general Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).
The cast is an embarrassment of riches, a true ensemble which will almost surely be recognized with a nomination at the SAG Awards in the category designated for ensembles, but which will need to approach the Oscars strategically for any member of it to find individual recognition. My guess is that Chicago 7 will be best positioned to land multiple acting nominations if it — justifiably — pushes Cohen and Redmayne as leads (their accents are uneven but they powerfully portray the left-wing’s polar opposite approaches to protest, particularly in one showdown in Kunstler’s office) and everyone else as supporting players (Rylance seems a real threat for what might be the strongest performance in the film, while Keaton will be tempting for his glorified cameo).
There are seven months remaining in this most unusual awards season, so it is premature, to say the least, to be making firm Oscar predictions. But given the quality of Chicago 7 (minus the Langella character being a bit cartoonish), the timing of its release and the demographics of the Academy (liberals of varying ages who will relate to the material in different ways), as well as the dearth of things for which I can see it being assailed (really just the dearth of female characters with much to say, for which Sorkin is sometimes criticized, but who simply were not central to this particular story), I think it should not be underestimated.
In my humble opinion, there is a very real chance that noms will be in store for not just one or two of its performances, but also for the film (which counts La La Land‘s Marc Platt among its producers), Sorkin’s direction and writing (so much for only being able to write and direct “people talking in rooms”), Baumgarten’s editing, Phedon Papamichael‘s cinematography (which powerfully intercuts actual archival footage with footage shot for the film), Shane Valentino‘s production design and Daniel Pemberton‘s score and original song “Hear My Voice” (which plays over the end credits and was so catchy that I immediately tried to Shazam it).
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