Aaron Sorkin has a certain flair for writing so over-the-top obvious, garish lines of dialogue that hint at current events, yet delivered with such conviction and spite that it feels stupid to even point it out. And, of course, there are a lot of those moments in Sorkin’s new film The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which will be on Netflix in October). There’s a moment in the film when the former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) is testifying that the whole trial is a sham and a political witch-hunt. The judge (Frank Langella) doesn’t want the jury to hear the testimony based on attorney-client privileges between the former attorney general and former President Lyndon Johnson. Michael Keaton mumbles a response. The judge asks him to repeat himself. Keaton dramatically turns to the camera and says that the president is not a client of the attorney general. A-ha! (Also of note, Ramsey Clark is still alive today.)
But, again, it’s delivered with such zing that instead of feeling pandering, it instead gave me a chill down my back. There were a few moments like that during The Trial of the Chicago 7. So, yes, 28 years after Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men, he returns with yet another blistering courtroom drama and, this time, he directed it himself.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, obviously, based on the real story of seven counterculture protesters who are charged with inciting a riot around the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention. It features an all-star cast that I hesitate even trying to list because then it would start to look like a who’s who of the IMDB star meter. The film starts right before the trial and uses the proceedings of the trial to tell the story in a series of flashbacks. Taking center stage at the trial is a combination of Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman (Cohen is much older than Hoffman was at this time, but he’s so good that it’s hard to care. Then after the movie I watched some Hoffman interviews on YouTube and let’s just say he looks a bit older for his age anyway, his buddy Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, doing his best Cheech and Chong impression; to the point I didn’t even recognize him), Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the co-founder of the Black Panthers who was railroaded into this trial even worse than the others), and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, in maybe his most un-peculiar role ever).
(It’s also worth noting how many times we hear Sacha Baron Cohen’s name associated with these amazing roles, only a few months later to hear he’s dropped out for some reason or another. His last movie before this was back in 2016 with, for no real reason, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Before that is was a cameo in Anchorman 2 and before that Les Misérables. But here, he finally went through with one of these amazing sounding roles and, yes, it turns out, he’s incredible. Also, I’d watch a documentary of Cohen and Strong on set together, never breaking character, most likely annoying anyone who crosses their paths.)
I mentioned Michael Keaton earlier, but his role in this film is basically as the ace reliever. The story is just cruising along and then, almost as if not wanting to make sure that lead is secure, here comes fireballing ace Michael Keaton to close the whole thing out. He’s not in the movie all that much, but he kind of plays the Bizzaro Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men. Basically the star witness, only he really wants to testify and lay it all out there for everyone. It’s just remarkable to see a movie firing on all cylinders like this, then Michael Keaton strolls on in and just blows the whole thing up to another level.
A Few Good Men is on television a lot. It’s actually difficult to flip through cable (yes, I still have cable television) and not see A Few Good Men playing. And I get sucked in every time. Sorkin’s dialogue just works so well in the courtroom setting. And with a fixed set like this, it all comes down to deliver and blocking as opposed to some of the tricks Sorkin leans too heavily on like the walking and talking thing. So imagine now, Sorkin has basically made a spiritual sequel to A Few Good Men with maybe just as many “I just got chills” moments. Honestly, since theaters basically ceased to exist, there’s been a few movies I’ve watched screeners at home and have really, really enjoyed. But this is the first that made me feel like I was back in a theater. This it felt like a real event. That I got those chills down the back as I watched something I’m just loving for the first time of what will be many times. (Though, being a Netflix movie, it won’t have a chance to be on cable nonstop. Alas.) Like I said, Sorkin’s dialogue can be pointed, almost to a fault, and he doesn’t shy away from that here – and it just works so well that I couldn’t help but give a little applause when it all wrapped up.
Also, this movie has a roll call during the credits. If I ever run for public office, I will campaign on the promise that, by law, every movie has to have a roll call at the end.
‘The Trial of the Chicago Seven’ will stream via Netflix on October 16. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.