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"The Trial of the Chicago 7" Review

 Oscar slog continues with The Trial of the Chicago 7, the latest directorial effort by uber-scribe Aaron Sorkin. Loaded with Oscar-winners/nominees and written by Sorkin, it was one of Netflix's power plays for Oscar love this year and scored five noms for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Editing. The problem is that the film is shockingly mediocre and muddled.

 For those younger than the Baby Boom generation, the Chicago 7 were actually eight radical group leaders who where charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democrat National Convention in Chicago. Next to Woodstock, the '68 DNC is one of those events Boomers nostalgically cling to with a death grip in their narcissistic and revisionist historical view that "We changed the world, man, and ended the Vietnam War, man, like wow, man." (Never mind that the war actually ended in 1973 and the American victory was undone by Democrats in the post-Watergate time of 1975 throwing South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese Communist wolves.) So it's natural that any telling of this tale will tickle the fancies of the Academy with their woke mania.

If you're familiar with Sixties radicals - and it's hard not to be considering how the Boomer-run media constantly heralded these guys as icons - you recognize the names of "Yippie" leaders Abbie Hoffman (nominated Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Students For A Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and National Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who was Black Manta in Aquaman). There were three other defendants, but these were the rock stars. 

The movie opens in early 1969 with the incoming Nixon Administration's Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman), wanting to press Federal charges for inciting the riot which state and the Johnson Administration passed on. He appoints a pair of prosecutors including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has qualms about the endeavor, to lead the fight. The defense is led by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, who should've been nominated over Cohen).

 Using a flashback structure within the trial, which is a complete clown show due to an judge of dubious mental faculty, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the movie jumps between the incredibly long trial (it lasted five months) and the events in question. But despite Sorkin's first play and movie being the courtroom drama A Few Good Men and his Oscar-winning The Social Network leaping back and forth from depositions to the creation of FaceSpace (what I call it), The Trial of the Chicago 7 lacks the coherence, focus, and overall Sorkin quality he's typically known for.

The troubles manifest early as the scene depicting the first day of the trail drags on interminably to establish what a mess Judge Hoffman is, interrupting opening arguments repeatedly with specious interjections like wanting to make clear to the jury that he is not related to Abbie Hoffman. Ideas are introduced and never followed up upon like Kunstler wanting psychological experts to observe the judge to see if he can be removed for incompetence, but nothing comes of it. Seale's attorney is missing at the beginning of the trial due to a medical emergency and he continually refuses to allow Kunstler to represent him, but it's never explained why he won't do that or why, as the trial drags on, he doesn't retain other counsel.

The performances range from good (Rylance) to adequate (Cohen) to bad (Redmayne, who really didn't deserve his Oscar for The Theory of Everything and always seems pained and mannered). I suspect Cohen's Supporting Actor nomination is because the Academy liked the Borat sequel, but couldn't nominate him for that despite nomination his co-star. 

Sorkin's debut directorial effort, Molly's Game, showed that he was a better writer than director. Here his directorial skills have improved while his writing has plummeted. The mawkish, supposedly crowd-pleasing ending is something he'd spoof, not do seriously. Even his trademark quippy, quotable dialog is absent, with the only memorable line coming as it's revealed how many police and FBI informants were close to the Chicago 7 in the run-up to the riot, "Is it possible there were only 10 actual protesters and 5000 undercover cops?" 

In an article discussing how mediocre this year's Oscar contenders are, someone noted that in any other year, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a movie that would've been made for HBO and forgotten six months later. They had a typo; it was six minutes. 

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.  


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