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Review: Big fireworks (and a few duds) in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Aaron Sorkin's look at the 1968 case is showy awards season theater, and knows it

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Equal parts ambitious, grandiose, preachy and self-important, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is a big, showy display of many of the things Hollywood does well, and a few of the things it doesn't. 

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin assembles a huge cast for this lively and surprisingly timely look at the anti-war protestors accused of inciting riots in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

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

When it clicks, it's gangbusters, with Sorkin's signature rat-a-tat dialogue bouncing between the actors like a pinball.

And when it falls flat, it feels like a relic of a certain kind of moviemaking, the go-for-broke awards season showpiece that's built for Oscar statues and for Hollywood to give itself a big ol' self-congratulatory pat on the back. 

Give it credit for swinging for the fences, and even if it's not hitting 450 foot dingers, it at least lands a couple of ground rule doubles. It takes an unwieldy subject with a dozen-plus major characters and makes it digestible, and ties into current hot button issues of protest, activism, police brutality, freedom of speech and fear.

In a film where Sorkin's script is the main character and the actors all lend supporting performances, Eddie Redmayne's Tom Hayden splits starring duties with his fellow defendants in the Chicago 7.

He and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) are students pushing for change, and they're joined on the defense stand by a committed pacifist (John Carroll Lynch), a pair of comic relief hippies (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), and a duo (Danny Flaherty and Noah Robbins) that is more or less along for the ride. The 7's 8th is Bobby Seale ("Watchmen's" Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the Black Panthers co-founder who represents himself on trial, and at one point is bound and gagged for his frequent outbursts. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) is defending the group along with Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman), Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the fair and secretly idealistic young attorney prosecuting them, and Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is the stodgy, old guard, openly bias judge reigning over the circus. And Michael Keaton shows up late in the game as Ramsey Clark, a star witness for the defense, because this thing just didn't have enough stars already.    

The timeline bounces between the trial and the incidents that led up to it, with scenes often crisscrossing between timelines and characters sharing narration duties like they're passing a hot potato. There are powerful builds with orchestral swells that stir emotion, and courtroom scenes with Langella banging his gavel and yelling "order!" that feel like a parody of every courtroom scene in every movie, ever. You take the good with the eye-rolling, it's the Sorkin way. 

Cohen gets the juiciest role — Strong is relegated to sidekick status — as Hoffman, who makes a mockery of everything because he sees the trial for the sham that it is. But he also strives for real change, dressing up his radicalism as a comedy act because a spoonful of sugar makes everything go down easier. ——

Cohen, too, likely sees "The Trial of the Chicago 7" as the dressed-up piece of theater that it is, but he's playing the game because he wants that Oscar. Like the movie, he shows you can be shrewd, self-serving and well-intentioned all at once, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use

Running time: 130 minutes

In theaters Friday, on Netflix Oct. 16

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama