By Leah Greenblatt
September 24, 2020 at 09:00 PM EDT
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Credit: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

There are certain things the words "written and directed by Aaron Sorkin" almost seem to guarantee: Will there be a few good men, and some very bad ones too? Will it be talky and timely and speak (and speak and speak) truth to power? The Trial of the Chicago 7 (on Netflix Oct. 16) delivers exactly that sort of Sorkin-us maximus, in both the best and worst sense — a remarkably relevant story, smartly told, but with certain blind spots and pitfalls: broad strokes, rhetorical grandstanding, the tendency to overstuff an already load-bearing tale.

As a history lesson too, it plays more than a little fast and loose. But the basic, outrageous facts are there: Thousands of protesters against the war in Vietnam, many of them drafting age, flocked to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where violent clashes with local police ensued. In the wake of Richard Nixon's election, the new attorney general singled out eight figureheads for felony charges that included incitement to riot and conspiracy across state lines.

The Department of Justice's cynical take was that they were all colluding, a grand scheme nearly every one of the defendants rejected out of hand. And it's not hard to see why: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) were clean-cut college boys, avatars of polite middle-class outrage in slacks and skinny ties; Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) were the wild, woolly Yippies, bringing happy chaos to the streets. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was a middle-aged suburban pacifist, and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) the already-incendiary head of the Black Panthers; a pair of lesser-known activists and academics, John Froines and Lee Weiner brought up the rear.

Not unkindly, the movie consigns those last two almost immediately to a sort of glorified peanut gallery. Though that is still, you may have noted, one too many for the title — for good reason; from the start, Seale moved to sever his case, adamant that his few hours of speechifying in Chicago had no connection or bearing on his codefendants, an assertion with which their own lawyer (Mark Rylance) fervently agreed. But it's clear on day one where the sympathies of the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) lie: with a ginned-up prosecution led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Richard Schlutz, a young DOJ lawyer who doesn't just look like a grown Boy Scout; his personal code of honor may prove too rarified for the case he's been asked to try.

Sorkin sets all this up with a sort of sweeping "hey, man, the '60s" exposition, which still leaves him nearly two hours to weave in and out of the courtroom — tracing a trial whose polarizing cause and outrageous antics on both sides became a cultural flashpoint, amplified daily by the gathered hordes of media and impassioned bystanders. A bewigged and beaded Cohen is wolfishly great as the merry prankster with a more serious conviction at his core; Strong, far from his Succession role, leans in as his shaggy foil, a sort of sweetly stoned muppet with eyes perpetually at half-mast.

Langella conjures an ideal vessel of the evil Establishment, both doddering and shrewd, and other excellent players come and go, including Michael Keaton as the steely former AG and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as famed Panther Fred Hampton. It's Rylance and Abdul-Mateen, though, who pierce the comfortable rhythms of the narrative, their fierce conviction cutting through what can sometimes feel — with its busy stream of characters and clattering pace — less like a film than a sort of deluxe television event.

The script saves some of its most fiery material for them, the kind of thunderbolt Sorkin-isms that land with a satisfying crack. Though it allows them to inhabit quieter moments, too, and the movie is at its best when it roots itself in the real consequences of the case — not only for the men involved, but for a nation increasingly unable to bridge its most painful divides. In that, Chicago 7 frames the past not just as entertaining prologue but a living document; one we ignore at our own peril. B

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