By Chris Hewitt
"The Trial of the Chicago 7" isn't good, but I'd recommend it anyway.
The somewhat factual movie is so visually incoherent that it's sometimes hard to tell who's speaking, and writer/director Aaron Sorkin concludes it with a manufactured "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment I suspect every real person involved would hate. But the dramatization of the trial of activists Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and others for conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention gives its cast enough opportunity for acting fireworks to fill an entire best-supporting-actor race.
Actors will be using "Chicago 7" as audition material for decades to come, since Sorkin designed the movie as a series of flashy but jumbled scenes. So the best way to evaluate it is simply to rank its key performances:
1. Mark Rylance (as William Kunstler): The Oscar winner and Guthrie fave wittily plays an attorney caught between the conflicting needs of his seven clients (the film deftly explains his relationship to an eighth, Bobby Seale, who defends himself before getting removed from the case). In a movie with a lot of speechifying — a character could stub his toe and Sorkin would give him prepared remarks — Rylance's speeches make the most sense because his Kunstler is crafting a narrative for the jury.
2. Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman): Is he openly working against the defendants with his capricious rulings? Is he nuts? Is he gaslighting everyone? Langella has a whale of a time making us believe all three.
3. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Seale): Mateen's quiet power is especially evident in the horrific (true) scenes in which the judge orders Seale, still a defendant, gagged and bound to his chair. When the judge asks if he'll be silent so the gag can be removed, Mateen's fierce shake of his head speaks louder than anything in Sorkin's wordy script.
4. Sacha Baron Cohen (Hoffman): The activist is portrayed as treating the trial like political theater, and Cohen responds with a playful performance unlike any character in his own films.
5. John Carroll Lynch (David Dellinger): "I'm literally a Boy Scout leader," says the former Guthrie company member, playing the straightest arrow among the defendants. Lynch's plain-spoken decency contrasts effectively with the epigrams swirling around him.
6. Michael Keaton (Ramsey Clark): Clark is the conscience of the movie and, although the historical details are fudged, Keaton's quietly principled acting rings true.
7. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz): Sorkin sets up Schultz, the prosecutor for the federal government, as a political naif increasingly at odds with his own case. Gordon-Levitt's unconventional casting is smart since he's a more natural fit for one of the defendants.
8. John Doman (John Mitchell): The real Mitchell was an unprincipled, profane creep, and Doman digs into all of that with relish.
9. Eddie Redmayne (Hayden): The film's idea is that Hayden was trying to work within the system, instead of overthrowing it, but the actor seems to be wondering why he got stuck in the dullest role.
10. Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin): Strong just snagged an Emmy for "Succession" but his bewildering accent, overemphasized dialogue and eccentric body language won't win any trophies.