“The Trial of the Chicago 7” reinvents courtroom drama

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IN THE 1990s the courtroom drama was one of Hollywood’s most reliable and versatile genres. At least two dozen were released in that decade, including Oscar winners (“Philadelphia”), blockbusters (“A Time to Kill”) and even the occasional comedy (“My Cousin Vinny”). The genre’s ubiquity extended beyond the silver screen. Court TV, a cable network, drew viewers for its wall-to-wall coverage of the OJ Simpson murder trial, and the televised impeachment of President Bill Clinton is remembered as one of the touchstones of the decade

The genre declined in the 2000s but is now back in vogue. In 2016 “American Crime Story” drama Mr. Simpson’s trial and the upcoming season of the anthology series will visit Mr. Clinton’s hearings. “Marshall” (2017) described one of Thurgood Marshall’s early cases in Connecticut; “When They See Us” (2019) revisited the events of the Central Park jogger case. Now Aaron Sorkin, who helped spark the original movement with “A Few Good Men” in 1993, is back with “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, a fast-paced, fast-paced retelling of the legal case against seven defendants -campaign against the war. by police outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

As is often the case in Mr. Sorkin’s work, the characters are defined almost entirely by their political views. The defenders come to Chicago with the same goal – to protest against the Vietnam war – but they are different in their favorite ways. Hippie Abbie Hoffman (brilliantly played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Ruben (Jeremy Strong) want to organize “events” to attract the press and attention to their ideas. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), a buttoned-up activist who keeps his hair short and his temper under control, hates his attention-seeking peers and prefers to appeal to the average American . “For the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics,” he predicts, “they’ll think of you and your idiotic, giving nonsense followers. to activists.”

The film is full of distinguished actors, each of them making the most of their screen time. Mark Rylance embodies controlled anger as William Kuntzler, the defense attorney; Frank Langella succeeds as an oppressive (and possibly senile) judge; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the young district attorney who is conflicted about his job of prosecuting the protesters under a new law – one designed by white southerners to suppress movements black activists. It is no coincidence that Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of Black Panther, is among the defendants, even though he was not present for the alleged riots.

It’s a story full of heavy themes, but Mr. Sorkin wraps them in an electrifying film. Instead of simply showing witness testimony and cross-examination, it cuts from the stand to a retelling of the events described and then to Hoffman cracking a joke at one of the his public speeches. In the hands of a less accomplished storyteller, it would be easy to lose the thread, but Mr. Sorkin keeps it tight thanks to well-timed cuts and a keen understanding of the viewer’s attention span.

Indeed, his focus on criminal trial as political theater allows him to make a different kind of courtroom drama. “The whole world is watching,” the crowd sings like a Greek chorus, and the defenders take note. From the outset, Hoffman and Ruben are committed to making a show of the experiment, to undermining what they perceive as a corrupt system and to uphold their anti-war beliefs. They hold provocative press conferences outside the courtroom and regularly interrupt the judge from the defendant’s box. They know that will increase the length of the sentence, but the goal of more disruption is more important to them. (In this “The Trial of the Chicago 7” there is a story especially suitable for Mr. Sorkin, who is often criticized for verbal grandeur at the expense of the story: here the vocabulary is the point.)

Courtroom dramas of the 1990s often strengthened trust in the rule of law by showing a brilliant lawyer correcting injustice by working within the American constitution. Today, amid intense disputes over the politics of the Supreme Court and a growing awareness of how systemic racism has defied due process, for some observers such a story may feels too unrealistic to be satisfied. Instead Mr. Sorkin has made a film that, although set in 1968, is about America in 2020, when reinventing the wheel might be the best way to go. taken seriously.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is streaming on Netflix now

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