There are certain things the words “written and directed by 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.
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 ( Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) were clean-cut college boys, avatars of polite middle-class outrage in slacks and skinny ties; Abbie Hoffman ( Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin ( 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 ( 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.
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 role, leans in as his shaggy foil, a sort of sweetly stoned muppet with eyes perpetually at half-mast.