All I need to say is this film's title and "written and directed by Aaron Sorkin" and you know exactly what you're in for: snappy dialogue, a pedigreed cast, and comforting center-left populism. In a way, if you're familiar with Sorkin's work, it's like you've already seen The Trial of the Chicago 7. That's not a bad thing. I like much of Sorkin's output, so I found the film engrossing and entertaining.
After opening with a brief montage of American life in the late 1960s, and an introduction to a fictitious federal prosecutor played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chicago 7 jumps right into the courtroom, as the titular seven defendants – a motley crew of white leftist activists accused of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago – settle in for their trial. (The riot itself plays out in multiple flashbacks.) Rather conspicuously, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), national chairman of the Black Panther Party, is lumped in with these seven, even though he wasn't involved in the riot, was barely even in Chicago at the time, and is consistently denied legal representation, as his lawyer is ill.
In fact it is the outrageous mistreatment that Seale receives, mostly at the hand of the trial's blatantly biased judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), that is Chicago 7's most enlightening history lesson. If the seven other defendants share varying degrees of responsibility for the riot (which was really started by Chicago cops), Seale clearly had no reason to be in that courtroom, and what happens to him is downright frightening. Sorkin and Langella also make Julius Hoffman easy to hate. He is the most despicable villain in 2020 cinema.
Although it is inarguably an ensemble picture, Chicago 7 mostly focuses on the conflicting views of the trial's two most famous defendants: future politician Tom Hayden (cleaned up and portrayed, by Eddie Redmayne, as a bit of a goody two-shoes) and Yippie anarchist/clown Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, who sort of passes for the Abbie Hoffman of our time). The actors are excellent – the whole cast is excellent – even if you sense that Sorkin is bringing both Hoffman's and Hayden's politics closer to the center than they really were.
From A Few Good Men to To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin loves a good legal drama, especially one that pits honest, hard-working good guys against arrogant, unrepentant bad guys. And The Trial of the Chicago 7 is certainly relevant in today's era of protests, both righteous and not, where the question of who "incites" a riot has become a national issue. But in the end, Sorkin wants to please his audience, and this film will leave you feeling satisfied, pumped up, and only somewhat manipulated by its maker.