Film reviews: The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Rialto | Eternal Beauty

Aaron Sorkin takes Oliver Stone levels of liberties with the story of the protesters put on trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but can’t deliver anything like his filmmaking skills by way of compensation, writes Alistair Harkness

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 6:08 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st October 2020, 6:26 pm
Aaron Sorkin offers a theme-park version of the past in The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin offers a theme-park version of the past in The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (15) **

Rialto (15) ****

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Eternal Beauty (15) ****

Like Steven Spielberg’s The Post without the virtuosic visuals and razzle-dazzle casting, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatises another pivotal moment of political dissent in the Vietnam War era and attempts to offset nostalgia by milking the contemporary parallels for all they’re worth. Zeroing in on the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago police riot that saw the city’s cops brutalise anti-war protestors during that year’s disastrous Democratic National Convention, Sorkin’s subject certainly seems timely on paper given the violence, chaos and civil unrest that has already accompanied the run-up to the this year’s American presidential elections. But as Sorkin focuses on the titular trial of the New Left figureheads who were belatedly charged with conspiring to incite violence – a punitive and vindictive measure enacted by the newly elected Nixon administration – the film (which actually started life as a vehicle for Spielberg) reveals itself to be sloppy, sanctimonious and worse, meaningless.

The problems start early with an inappropriately upbeat prologue that jauntily intercuts archival footage of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy with rapidly edited shots of the main players preparing for the Chicago protests. Introducing them with signature Sorkin walk-and-talks, we soon meet student activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); counter-culture clowns Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); fellow protestors John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins); pacifist organiser David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panthers.

Seale, though, is not actually part of the so-called “seven.” Having been roped into the trumped-up conspiracy charges as part of the justice department’s ongoing efforts to neutralise him, the Kafka-esque absurdity of his predicament quickly becomes a queasy reminder of the precarious reality of being black in America: part way through the trial he’s literally bound and gagged in the courtroom at the behest of Judge Julius Hoffman (a suitably demented turn from Frank Langella). Given where we are in the world, it’s the most fascinating aspect of the story, so it’s too bad Sorkin undercuts his own moral indignation at this outrage by denying Seale the same character-deepening flashbacks he grants Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin.

If this exposes the limits of Sorkin’s penchant for crafting the kind of comforting liberal fantasies that can, on the flip side, also give rise to a genius TV show such as The West Wing, his roots as a student of musical theatre rather than politics or history are also readily apparent in the way he both revels in the grandstanding theatricality of the ensuing courtroom shenanigans and the misjudged effort he makes to capture the chaos of the events leading up to the trial. The latter is especially jarring.

Splicing news footage of the riots and police beat-downs into his own re-enactments, he diminishes the horror of what really happened by cutting away to the corny sight of a bunch of well-lit actors in bad wigs and too-clean period garb going through the motions – it’s as if Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s landmark 1969 film shot in the midst of the very same Chicago riots, never happened.

More dispiriting still is the way Sorkin underestimates his audience, drawing attention to his use of unnecessary metaphors because he can’t think of a better way to dramatise certain scenes without resorting to idiot-proof symbolism. He further demonstrates his weakness as a director (something that wasn’t quite so apparent in his fun but inconsequential poker drama Molly’s Game) by cutting sequences together the way you might a theme-explicating movie trailer. This becomes most evident during the build-up to an ideological showdown between Hayden and Hoffman that brings the movie’s second act to a close in a frenzy of righteous egotism, one that descends into an unbearably smug linguistic-themed contretemps that might have had a lot more force had Sorkin not discarded contemporary accounts of a supposedly incendiary speech Hayden gave so he (Sorkin) could make a self-satisfied point about correct grammar usage.

Indeed Sorkin’s fidelity to the historical record here rivals Oliver Stone’s. But at least Stone on form is capable of delivering searing cinema. History in Sorkin’s hands – at least in this instance – doesn’t so much comes alive as get transformed into a theme-park version of the past.

Rialto sees Scottish director Peter Mackie Burns follow up his promising festival hit Daphne with a harrowing mid-life crisis movie about a grieving family man (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who can’t stop himself from pulling the pin on his life. Though by no means an easy watch, it’s exceptionally well directed by Mackie Burns, who elevates the stage-sourced material into an exacting piece of cinema that teases out some complex father-son themes via Vaughn-Lawlor’s palm-sweating performance in the lead and Tom Glynn-Carney’s delicate turn as the young rent boy with whom he becomes involved.

Also demonstrating his filmmaking chops is Welsh actor Craig Roberts, whose second feature as a director, Eternal Beauty, is a pleasingly strange and inventive comedy drama about a schizophrenic (Sally Hawkins) navigating a complex relationship with her dysfunctional family. Roberts shares Charlie Kaufman’s ability to take surreal narrative leaps without losing his grip on the story at hand – as he does when he oscillates between his heroine’s present-day mental chaos and her youth as an unsure of herself beauty queen (Morfydd Clark plays her as a young woman) – but there’s a sweetness and generosity of spirit too that’s disarming without feeling quirky for the sake of it. David Thewlis, Penelope Wilton and Billie Piper co-star.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on selected release in cinemas and will be available on Netflix on from 16 October; Rialto is on selected release in cinemas; Eternal Beauty is on selected release in cinemas and available on demand

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