Sorkin wastes no time throwing viewers into the chaos of 1968, introducing viewers to the key players in what would become known as the trial of the Chicago 7 as they plan their trip to the Windy City to protest the Vietnam War during the Democratic National Convention. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) encourage peaceful protests with an emphasis on the young lives being lost in an unjust war. Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) have a more chaotic approach to protest, arguing that dismantling the system only happens when it’s disrupted first. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a family man who assures his wife and son that nothing dangerous will happen in Chicago, as Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) promises he too will be in and out without much fanfare.
Of course, everyone knows what happened in Chicago in 1968—chaos erupted multiple times, leading to riots that caught international attention. Sorkin starts his film months later, with an angry Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) tasking Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) with the case of their lives, trying the men he believes were responsible for the unrest. The power has shifted from LBJ and AG Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) to Nixon and Mitchell, and they want to use Hoffman, Hayden, and the rest as examples of what will happen to those who protest the war. Mark Rylance plays the main attorney for the seven, William Kunstler, and Frank Langella is phenomenal as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man who teeters on that dangerous edge between incompetent and evil.
Clearly, this is a powerhouse cast, and they all relish the opportunity to chew on Sorkin’s timely and provocative language. There’s really not a weak link in terms of performance, and several of them shine in unexpected ways. Strong finds a winning vulnerability in Jerry Rubin; Rylance nails Kunstler’s increasing exasperation at a broken system; Mateen II’s simmering rage at even being dragged through the process is palpable; Redmayne finds the right key for Hayden’s righteous intellectualism; Keaton is perfect in only two scenes. There are such wonderful individual moments and beats in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” that just watching it as an acting exercise makes it worthwhile.