Aaron Sorkin is back in the courtroom. The man who made his debut as a movie writer with A Few Good Men is once again in front of a judge for the politically-charged drama The Trial of the Chicago 7. As well as translating the true story of the bizarre trial for the big screen, Sorkin is having another crack at stepping behind the camera as director, three years after his smart, stylish debut with Molly's Game. Many of the acclaimed scribe's usual flourishes and flashes of genius are present, of course, but there's a sense that this is a man pushing himself a little too far.
There's no denying that the material here is vast and expansive, focusing on disorder at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 surrounding protesters speaking out against the Vietnam War. Sorkin opts for not one, but two framing devices to guide audiences through the story, with the increasingly wild courtroom antics as the spine of the narrative and extra colour added by scenes of trial defendant Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) recounting his take on the story as a stand-up comedy routine to a bar full of students.
This is complex material and one of the first struggles The Trial of the Chicago 7 faces is that the multi-layered framing simply muddles the story further. After a pacey, very Sorkin-esque prologue that introduces all of the main players with quick-fire dialogue and slick, propulsive editing, it doesn't take long for the script to get bogged down in its attempts to construct an exciting, non-linear approach. Anyone without a working knowledge of the real-life story could be forgiven for wanting everything to just slow down a little.
But that's not Sorkin's style, and it's certainly not something he wants to do while attempting to cram such wordy, intricate issues into a movie that runs to only just over two hours. This trial was a cartoonish media spectacle – Google the most ludicrous moments in the movie and it becomes clear they're completely true – and Sorkin is committed to bringing that theatricality and pantomime feel to his take on the courtroom. Much of that is achieved through Cohen's widely ballyhooed performance, with the entirety of proceedings building towards his evidence – a main event that falls a little flat.
There are, however, some very strong performances to be found among the cast. Eddie Redmayne holds everything together as Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden, excelling as a pragmatic but impassioned alternative to Cohen's more anarchic political approach. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance brings his righteous theatrical gravitas to the Seven's defence attorney William Kunstler and Frank Langella is suitably hissable as the morally questionable judge presiding over the case. Sadly, the movie has no idea what to do with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale – played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – though his courtroom mistreatment does provide the movie with its most powerful scene, allowing the dialogue to calm down and let silence tell the story.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an entertaining enough film, with a Sorkin script always capable of conjuring memorable moments, even though he seems to have left the afterburners off in order to focus on direction. Michael Keaton's cameo in particular, as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, has the energy, smarts and vigour of peak Sorkin, but it's over too quickly in favour of fairly limp protest sequences that aren't staged with the level of urgency and danger they need. In the week in which Steve McQueen's incendiary, brilliant Mangrove is playing at the London Film Festival, Sorkin looks second best.
There's no denying Sorkin's credentials as a writer, but this film shows that he doesn't quite have the same dynamic mastery when he's behind the camera. At least not yet. It's difficult not to imagine the alternative version of history in which Steven Spielberg went ahead and directed this material from a Sorkin script way back in 2007. That could've been a masterpiece, whereas The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a deeply disappointing near-miss, despite its prestige gloss and flashes of genuine invention.
Dir: Aaron Sorkin
Scr: Aaron Sorkin
Prd: Stuart M. Besser, Matt Jackson, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson
DOP: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Run time: 129 minutes
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is in UK cinemas now and available on Netflix from 16th October.