Things are about to really get rolling in the movie business. Now is the time of year when the studios trot out their thoroughbreds in hopes of making an impression that will carry them all the way to the big trophies in February and, if you can believe it, April. But for another week or two, we have only holiday encore releases and other forgettable filler material to sustain us. Luckily, Netflix started releasing its contenders last fall. And now is the perfect time to get caught up, starting with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
A lot of folks have found refuge this past year in nostalgic television, particularly “The West Wing.” One of the principal comforts of that show, for me at least, is the scripting of Aaron Sorkin. There might not be a better dialogue writer in the game. To be fair, he’s often accused of overwriting and his detractors tend to find the quick-paced, highly literate nature of his repartee a little exclusive and off-putting. Not me. I love every brisk minute of it and the harder time I have keeping up, the happier I am. More on that in a moment. For now, it’s worth mentioning that Sorkin has only directed two big screen projects to date. “Molly’s Game” from 2017 and now Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” It’s a welcome return to the courtroom for Sorkin too, who made a name for himself in that space back in 1992 as the writer of “A Few Good Men.”
The established modern masters of cinematic dialogue are cut from the same cloth. In addition to Sorkin, I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Diablo Cody. The list is as long as it is subjective. But they all walk the razor thin lines that separate quickness and incoherence, the literary and the pretentious, wit and self-awareness. At their best, these writers elevate human speech into something meaningfully aspirational and genuinely fun. At their worst, it can feel like they are using their brains as a cudgel for ours. They make us feel uninformed and a little slow. “Nobody really talks like that” is a common critique of Sorkin and those like him. Real people are never that fast or that clever or that exhaustively well-read. While that assessment is probably true, as far as it goes, it forgets that we sometimes wish people were. Sorkin’s world of rapid-fire wisdom is an intoxicating one. I like being in it.
We’ve talked before on On Set about the trial genre in film. It’s a tough place to say new things but, to Sorkin’s credit, “Chicago 7″ doesn’t really try. It’s right down the middle in terms of pacing and delivery. Sure, the story rhythm is occasionally mixed up by asides and flashbacks, but nothing truly surprises. This is always part of the bargain of presenting true stories, but that isn’t the only thing going on here. It also feels like Sorkin is focusing on craft instead of content. The craft of script writing, of course, but also scene setting, acting…all of the things that make great movies great without taking huge risks. I wouldn’t call “Chicago 7″ great, but I would call it very good. Like “The West Wing” or “A Few Good Men”, the casting is sublime. Everyone handles the signature juxtaposition of gravity and breeziness of Sorkin’s words with skill and care. There are too many names to praise here, but I have to mention Frank Langella. His portrayal of Judge Julius Hoffmann is a stand-out. You might hate the pre-determined bias of the character, but you will adore how well the actor plays it. It’s a microcosm of what makes the film so enjoyable. It’s the craft.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is certainly going to be considered for some big honors this winter. The Academy is right to allow streaming and digital films to qualify for the 2021 show. I, for one, sincerely hope they extend the practice beyond COVID.