The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

“This is a political trial.”

Intermittently resonant and admittedly timely, there remains a genuine hollowness to The Trial of the Chicago 7 that I cannot shake. The film is a verbose veneer, a fast-talking and falsely fronted look at real life events, shaped and molded to help its teething mouth confront the same seething political unrest we’re experiencing today. That’s all good and well and deserved. It makes sense. But the film also tries way too hard to introduce the current to the past through clashing means instead of joining the two together at the hip, eventually learning to walk stride for stride, and it turns a deserving story into a laborious and tedious history lesson. I couldn’t help but leave it believing that there are more important tales of political unrest to begging to be told.

Maybe my dislike of the film should be be chalked up to my own naivete. After all, I’m no political junkie, and history always was one of my worst subjects. I admittedly had never heard of nor been taught about the events the story depicts, and at this point I’ve honestly read too much to deny that some of it is pure fiction. For those who don’t know, this vanity affair project covers the 1969 trial attempting to bandage and silence the violence and bloodshed born from protests during the 1968 DNC, harkening for peace in an era drenched in Vietnam backlash and largely backwards lawmaking. The clash between wrong and right was inevitable. But I’m not sure that mean’s it is inherently compelling here either.

It’s hard to know where to start with critiquing this movie, mostly because it’s so unsure of its POV throughout yet is so cockily told and forced along from beat to beat with its script. It’s a long, rocky ride from beginning to end. And for whatever reason that seems to have been by design. Scripted by the the prodigious Aaron Sorkin, one of the most precise living playwrights, The Trail of the Chicago 7 also sounds good and true, but I don’t think he has the skill to hone or honor his own work. His efforts directing have felt disorienting at best and clumsy at worst, while some of his best written work was tamed and imbued with the subtlety of very intentional, stylistic directors. Sorkin’s dialogue is spewed a mile a minute, and I’m not sure he’s the director to pass along the baton to the audience. His frenzied direction and hyper script never take a collective breath. It’s like listening to the end of a prescription drug commercial; the effects can be gravely serious but they don’t mean much when they’re largely glossed over in frenetic, fantastical blurbs, with backdrops full of actors who are so obviously acting.

The Trial of the Chiago 7 struggles to feel fully realized and coalesced, with its hazily lit court room sequences failing to gel with behinds the scenes drama and clumsily edited moments of protest. Sorkin’s direction is scatological, as is his brilliant dialogue, and a master director might’ve been able to make this one into a movie instead of a filmed play. The performances help, at least for the most part. Mark Rylance shines as the rebellious litigator William Kuntsler, and Frank Langella stands above all as the repugnant, literally loathsome Judge Julius Hoffman. But then there’s Eddie Redmayne as the everyman Tom Hayden, once again relying on ticks and mannerisms without the ability to ever truly inhabit his true life counterpart. At this point his façades suggest he’s incapable of realism. And yet Jeremy Strong’s turn as the dopey hippie Jerry Rubin remains my least favorite – yet not the worst – performance of the year. His power as an actor comes from bottling restraint to the point of explosion, and this role is too lethargic for him to believably imbue lazy stoner vibes. The rest of ensemble is just as mediocre.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels far too grandiose for something so seemingly inconsequential in the history books, and is a movie that’s too willing to throw all three darts in one aimless direction while crossing fingers behind its back, hoping to surpass the sum of its parts. It should be needless to say at this point that the movie doesn’t amount to more than it’s worth. This is prestige filmmaking without the pedigree, a story lacking true conviction, and is such a very deeply forgettable endeavor. Why not take the time to really investigate the deep details for a proper documentary feature instead of giving us a film with an ending that’s such a sanctimonious, patronizing piece of pageantry? Sometimes reality is done a grave disservice when it’s baptized in and by the waters of fiction.

“I felt nothing.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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