Originally written by Aaron Sorkin way back in 2007, this film was supposed to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but he passed on it. Shot in 2018 & 2019 by Sorkin himself, then theatrically shelved because of the virus, Netflix snapped up this terrific movie for all to see. Thank you!
Trial movies can be boring sometimes with all the legalese and courtroom tactics, but with an Aaron Sorkin whip-smart script, you are always in for a treat. The time is 1968 and the huge Democratic Presidential National Convention is about to get underway in Chicago. BUT! That convention is about to be in a world of hurt as several factions propose to peacefully march there, protesting the war in Vietnam. As these groups rally together at a nearby park, the FBI sends ringers in to infiltrate the group and chaos erupts with police, tear gas, and riots breaking out.
While hundreds are getting their heads bashed in, eight are arrested for conspiracy to riot and other charges. They are: Political activist Thomas Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), his friend Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), family man David Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch), brilliant jokester Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), dim Yippie leader Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and two flunkies, Lee Weiner & John Froines (Noah Robbins & Daniel Flaherty). Plus Black Panther Bobby Seales (Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II), who shouldn’t even be there as his attorney is in the hospital.
The seven are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) who is having the worst time in court, mainly because Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is old, senile, and racist. It also doesn’t help when his clients (especially Hoffman) won’t shut up in court and Bobby Seales is throwing a fit (and rightfully so) that he isn’t properly represented! During the trial, we see repeated flashbacks to the incidents that put them there, some backstories, and the prosecuting attorney (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) who is not sure if he’s doing the right thing.
If you know anything about history, you know about their ultimate sentencing and consequent appeal, but this movie is so much MORE than the trial. It focuses on the architects of the riots, why they happened, who was really to blame, the utterly disgraceful courtroom behavior, and the lives of the people outside the courtroom walls. And nobody is better to tell this story than Aaron Sorkin. If you’re a fan like me, you already know his wit, his style, and the uncanny way he writes dialogue so perfectly natural and over-lapping, you’d swear the actors were just talking without any script at all.
This is Sorkin’s second only directed movie (with 2017’s Molly’s Game being his first) and with tight, precise, and no-nonsense camerawork, you can’t imagine why Sorkin doesn’t direct all the time. Like Rob Reiner, he never wastes a single frame and knows how to pull you into a scene with imaginative angles and edits. And my God! Can this man ever cast a movie! It’s funny that many are British (Rylance, Redmayne, Cohen) with credible American accents. The most notable is Cohen’s Hoffman who comes off as an intellectual clown who delivers Sorkin’s best lines. Rylance in the court is exceptional, squaring off with Langella’s spit-fire judge and his own outspoken clients.
Both Gordon-Levitt and Redmayne were made for Sorkin’s brilliant prose and deliver it with such beautiful elegance that it’s like listening to word porn. And Abdul-Mahteen II, for the short amount of screen time he has, is both riveting and heart-breaking. For just over a two-hour movie, you’d think you’d get tired of a courtroom battle, but Sorkin superbly layers the film that you never lose interest. THAT is excellence in writing!
**Streaming exclusively on Netflix