Aaron Sorkin's superb “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a period piece for multiple periods: The drama takes place in the '60s, has the rousing flavor of a ‘90s popcorn thriller (like, say, the Sorkin-written “A Few Good Men”) and feels relevant and urgent in 2020.
Featuring a stellar cast, “Chicago 7” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in select theaters Friday and streaming Oct. 16 on Netflix) takes audiences back to the tumultuous late ‘60s, when Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were the cultural sparks that helped ignite a violent clash between Chicago police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Written and directed by Sorkin in his inimitable style, the story fleshes out the characters blamed by the government for that bloody event and examines a period of rancor between the people and the state that reflects our own divided times.
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“The whole world is watching!” chants the crowd gathered in 1969 outside the courthouse where eight men – including “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Democratic student activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and Black Panther Party head Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – are charged with conspiracy to incite a riot by President Richard Nixon’s new Justice Department.
Each character gets his own opening introduction, which is key to keeping them all straight when the obviously political trial begins – though there are ideological differences even among the defendants, as Tom and Abbie come to words often over the legal process. (Tom argues for capturing electoral power, while Abbie’s more of a revolutionary). Bobby, who was only in Chicago for four hours on the fateful day, insists he was a Black guy thrown in to “scare” the jury, and making matters worse is when Judge Julius Hoffman (a fantastic Frank Langella) won’t let Bobby represent himself when his lawyer is hospitalized.
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Sorkin’s second outing as director is a more confident and well-executed affair than his first, the solid “Molly’s Game,” and he’s interspersed real black-and-white footage of the riots with his filmed versions to capture a visceral authenticity that’s eerily reminiscent of the civil unrest seen on the news the past few months.
The courtroom and legal-eagle stuff, however, is where he truly shines. That snappy repartee and witty zingers folks loved from “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” are here in spades, often involving Cohen. “Mr. Hoffman, are you familiar with contempt of court?” the unqualified judge levels at Abbie. His retort: “It’s practically a religion for me, sir.”
There’s enough outstanding acting going on that audiences will likely come away with different favorites. Abbie and Jerry, who teaches people how to make Molotov cocktails and cherry bombs, are the resident comic relief, though there’s a depth and passion to their righteous cause that are all Cohen and Strong. (And if you’re just familiar with Cohen's comedy bits and “Borat,” there’s a scene with Redmayne that showcases his considerable dramatic chops.)
Abdul-Mateen, who just won an Emmy for “Watchmen,” deserves some serious Oscar consideration as Bobby, a man discriminated against pretty much every time he stands up. Mark Rylance does his best work since his Oscar-winning “Bridge of Spies” turn as quiet but furious defense attorney William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is effective as federal prosecutor Richard Schultz, and Michael Keaton is delightful dropping in for only a couple of scenes yet almost hijacks the whole shebang as former attorney general Ramsey Clark.
While character development is a bit of an issue with so many personalities rioting, arguing and bantering, it doesn’t impede the thought-provoking nature of “Chicago 7” or parallels that Sorkin draws between the ‘60s and now – and without a bunch of narrative gymnastics.
The filmmaker crafts an entertaining, immersive and ultimately optimistic spectacle that never forgets, especially at its ending, that humanity should always trump the system.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Trial of the Chicago 7' review: Netflix holds court with A-list cast