'The Trial of the Chicago 7' film still

Sacha Baron Cohen, left, and Jeremy Strong star in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

If "The Trial of the Chicago 7" had been released, say, 10 years or less after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, maybe its title wouldn't have been so unserviceable. Yes, it's accurate and succinct, but to many modern moviegoers, particularly the younger crowd, the phrase "Chicago Seven" isn't nearly as evocative — if at all — as to someone who watched the famed anti-war riots during the DNC happen, or even someone whose parents watched it happen. No, it's about as stale a title imaginable for a retelling of such a rousing moment in U.S. history.

But Aaron Sorkin's film itself is nowhere near stale. Rather, one could easily convince me the storied screenwriter named his sophomore directorial effort so blandly to disarm the viewer, leaving them unprepared to experience visual storytelling as incendiary as the era which it attempts to capture. If that's what Sorkin was going for, it worked. With its first frames, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" kicks into overdrive, its explosive opening montage an efficient, invigorating summary of the various faces and tactics of the anti-war effort, as well as an informative tableau of the titular defendants, who were charged with conspiring to incite the aforementioned uproar.

From there until the final cut-to-black, the movie sizzles like a lit fuse as — in the tradition of other Sorkin scripts — it zigzags between the trial and the events leading up to it. Its nonlinear sequences are edited and written with more than enough momentum and flare to consistently enrapture, though not so frenetically or tangentially as to wrest viewers out of the trance. This marks Sorkin's most significant improvement since his 2017 directorial debut, "Molly's Game," which he also scripted: a very necessary capacity for self-restraint.

Whereas other directors handling Sorkin's previous scripts are more able to rein in his trademark, purposeful pedantry — like David Fincher with "The Social Network," perhaps the finest film we've seen this century — "Molly's Game" simply could not get out of its own way, its turgid dialogue and wanton narration distracting from what could have been a standout piece of entertainment. Not so with "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Sure, his characters are still ostentatious and even hyper-intellectual at times, but there are few indulgences to be found. Rather, nearly every exchange serves to frame the film's principal theme: the nature, parameters and morals of dissent.

Production began on the film about a year ago, but Sorkin and his players may as well be staring straight into the lens, solemnly, knowingly uttering to the 2020 crowd, "Are you paying attention?" Between the ostensibly peaceful ideals of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the Yippie antics of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and the radicality of the Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Sorkin's script beautifully exposits the friction that can build even between those aiming to upend the same system. It can all be neatly yet potently summed up in one line, delivered to a clean-cut Redmayne by a disheveled Baron Cohen, with a cynical grin: "We define winning differently, you and I."

Baron Cohen shines in a reliably snarky, darkly funny turn as Hoffman. His best moments are spent on the witness stand toward the end of the film, during which he exudes a commanding charm that dissolves just enough at the right times to clue us into the steadfast conviction beneath the surface. As younger, more conflicted characters, Redmayne and Joseph Gordon-Levitt — the latter playing federal prosecutor Richard Schultz — both orchestrate a veneer of stone-faced equanimity, though it clearly and purposefully belies a boyish unease. Written as an apparent avatar for Sorkin himself, Mark Rylance portrays defending attorney William Kunstler with a serene but stubborn levelheadedness, his dubiety of due process and the criminal justice system not quite so overwhelming as to shatter his poise.

When speaking of Sorkin's usual indulgences, there's a particular trope one might call the "Sorkin soliloquy," in which a character waxes philosophical or rambles moralistically as if begging the invisible director for a steady tracking shot and an orchestral swell. Sometimes it works — like the you-can't-handle-the-truth speech in "A Few Good Men" — and sometimes it doesn't — Idris Elba's pretrial tirade in "Molly's Game." Well, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" ebbs dangerously close to such ineffectively lavish monologue on several occasions, though the nearest thing to a harangue in this script is the final scene, which I won't give away. Still, while Sorkin's ear for comic relief is typically adept, he sometimes veers into another of his hit-or-miss tendencies by throwing in humorous quips or asides where they're simply not needed. Several of these are delivered by Strong, whose portrayal of Rubin feels pulled from a different movie, his cartoonishness rivaled only by Frank Langella's nefarious, borderline moustache-twirling turn as Judge Julius Hoffman.

But Sorkin's newfound maturity behind the camera is, as a whole, unassailable. With "The Trial of the Chicago 7," he's written the kind of story he does best and developed it for the screen as a gripping, electrifying ride through the moral quagmires of civil disobedience and the cost of patriotism, challenging viewers to identify what exactly that word means to them.

Rating: 4.5/5

John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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