With the presidential election looming and the recent civil unrest in Minneapolis and Louisville, the fact that this film is coming out right now is not a coincidence. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin have long had his say about American politics and its legal system – from hit shows like The West Wing to stage plays and feature films like A Few Good Men – Sorkin knows how to write politics and he knows his way around courtroom jargon. After being in development hell since 2007. Originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but when the writers’ strike happened the filming was delayed and the project was suspended. Finally, in 2018 Sorkin was announced and director and here we are, but alas one more issue would stand in the way – COVID-19 happened and Netflix swooped in to buy the distributing rights. The journey to get in front of an audience did not make the subject material irrelevant or out of date, horrifyingly enough it is absolutely necessary.
A film set in 1968 with themes of racial injustice, police brutality, corruption in government, and politicians ruling with their egos. Anyone of these topics could be ripped out of a 2020 newspaper heading and Sorkin makes more than certain you don’t forget about that.
Starting out with chants of “The Whole World is Watching” we are brought into the courtroom where 8 men are on trial (soon to be 7), all being accused of conspiring to incite a riot outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. What makes this film tick is the writing, but that writing wouldn’t mean much if it did not have one of the most talented ensemble casts in recent memory. Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Sacha Baron Cohen are the main defendants all giving absolutely top-notch performances and in the case of Strong and Cohen, arguably career bests. Add in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Mark Rylance, and Frank Langella and you have a masterclass of acting unfolding right in front of you. Each tackling Sorkin’s wit and spunky dialogue with maximum effect.
Because Sorkin is a writer first, the direction falters and is not nearly as strong. With so much going on in the world day there is no way he didn’t want every single word bringing as much weight as possible, because he leans on his script too much, at times this feels like a stuffy play. The film’s weakness of leaning on the script is not for no reason. While Sorkin doesn’t show as much prowess for being behind the camera yet, his screenplay is absolutely one of the best of the year. The trial itself went on for 5 months and Sorkin made the very best of pulling the most relevant and often hilarious days in court to string along a cohesive storyline while we follow the case. Because he can’t show us months’ worth of court proceedings he employs a great plot device in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman doing his stand-up routines at local colleges and giving updates on the trial while also being able to satirize the events in real-time.
While there will no doubt be plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding some of the cast and the script, I encourage you to watch the film through the lens of today’s issues and see just how far we have come, or fallen short. There is more to watch beside political commentary, with some of the best acting you will see this year and a rousing courtroom drama with enough levity and passion to keep your interest for all 129 minutes.
4 out of 5