Cinematic wordsmith Aaron Sorkin is back at it again, with his dogged brain gushing dialogue onto script pages filled with unforgettable moments and sharp, biting lines.

The man behind powerful screenplays like A Few Good Men, The Social Network and Moneyball takes his second turn behind the director’s chair, filming a script he wrote himself about the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a highly charged political courtroom drama that weaves its way into the current national spotlight by following a series of protests from groups trying to end the Vietnam War by staging demonstrations at a park in Chicago near the site where Democrats were nominating Hubert Humphrey for president.

Subsequent violent acts between protestors and Chicago police were met months later with the indictments of eight leaders of several different political organizations by federal prosecutors charging the anti-establishment movement with inciting riots.

At times, Chicago 7 is brilliant, leaning heavily on Sorkin’s extreme talents as a wordsmith to craft engaging and memorable moments. At other times, it becomes overly procedural and languishes in the melodrama that borders on an episode of Law and Order with blatant partiality and surreal buffoonery on the part of law enforcement that would feel comical if scenes weren’t based on real events.

Sorkin relies on his deep ensemble cast to lift the words off the page, including a pair of Academy Award winners with Eddie Redmayne as student protest organizer Tom Hayden and Mark Rylance as lead defense attorney William Kunstler.

Known for his more exasperated, showy performances, Redmayne is much more reserved and in control of his emotions as Hayden, often trying to be a sense of reason among all of the film’s dynamic tension while still pushing for an end to the Vietnam War.

Rylance provides the film with gravitas and, alongside veteran character actor Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as lead prosecutor Richard Schultz, gives Sorkin’s legal-heavy dialogue a sense of purpose and understanding for average audience members not as familiar with court proceedings.

Comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen gives perhaps his most serious and best performance to date as mild antagonist and co-defendant Abbie Hoffman, whose pejorative rantings and snide commentary offer a searing commentary on the film’s events while also serving as a large majority of the much-needed levity. Sorkin places Baron Cohen just off the center of the action to serve as a sort of satirical Greek chorus, alongside Jeremy Strong as fellow Yuppie leader Jerry Rubin, and his college speeches that come across as part stand-up, part political rally are among the most engaging moments of the entire film.

The film’s best, yet underserved plot line finds Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a breakout performance as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, a target of relentless harassment by a prejudiced and less-than-subtly racist system seeking to incarcerate him by any means necessary.

Shown almost entirely in courtroom scenes with the other defendants, Abdul-Mateen commands the attention of viewers regardless of what is happening around him with an undeniable strength and charisma. 

Sorkin shows significant improvement as a director with his second film, raising the stakes both in terms of visuals and scale over his 2017 feature Molly’s Game with Jessica Chastain and Kevin Costner.

Chicago 7 has grand, sweeping camera actions that flow in and out of conversations and character movement to give the audience a sense of scale. 

The cinematography and production design are exceptional in this regard, but it’s the expert editing of Alan Baumgarten that keeps the momentum rolling and allows Sorkin to navigate through events in a loop-de-loop, forward and backward in time style with expert use of cross-cutting between scenes at the trial, the protest and the ensuing violence.

A film that has screamed for awards consideration since its production was announced, Chicago 7 feels to be a shoo-in for a number of nominations at the next Academy Awards ceremony as other contenders give away to releases in 2021. The film is a likely Best Picture contender along with Original Screenplay and acting nominations for former winners Redmayne and Rylance as well as Baron Cohen and Langella feel well within the realm of possibility.

It should come as little surprise that Chicago 7 lands in the top tier of films to be released in 2020, standing around the same level as fellow Netflix dramas Da 5 Bloods and The Devil All The Time; this reflects both a similar standard for the streaming giant in terms of quality and also just how narrow the pool for high quality films is given the constant back-shuffling of cinematic blockbusters.

Chicago 7 still serves as a major step forward for a screenwriter turned filmmaker with a lot on his ever-running mind and something worth checking out on Netflix for cinephiles starved for quality drama and relentless dialogue.

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