Critics Say Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Shows His Gifts as a Filmmaker Beyond His Words

Netflix courtroom drama opens in theaters Friday before debuting on streaming on Oct. 16

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is as Sorkin-esque as you would imagine, with critics describing it as the sort of talky, yet rousing and prescient courtroom drama that only Aaron Sorkin does best.

Early reviews give it a 90% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 75 on Metacritic, with just about every review singling out different performances from its deep cast, including a more playful and goofy turn from Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong, a wry, more subdued tone from Mark Rylance and other strong moments from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Michael Keaton.

But even though the film should be familiar to fans of “The West Wing” and “The Social Network,” among others, critics say generally that “Chicago 7” stands out for Sorkin’s work as a filmmaker.

“Sure, his dialogue has been visceral and urgent in movies from ‘A Few Good Men’ to ‘The Social Network’ to ‘Steve Jobs.’ But in ‘Chicago 7’ — only his second film as a director, after 2017’s ‘Molly’s Game’ — he emerges as an assured filmmaker whose style can be as propulsive as his words,” TheWrap’s Steve Pond wrote in his review.

“Sorkin takes a rather dense, complicated court case–one peopled with figures who clung to stubborn differences even in the context of their shared ideals–and keeps it aloft every minute, as if he were following the aerodynamic principles of hang-gliding rather than moviemaking,” Stephanie Zacharek writes in TIME. “Best of all, he brings out the best each actor in this enormous ensemble cast has to offer; every character is rendered with jewelers-loupe clarity.”

And although “Chicago 7” has emerged as a strong Oscar contender, the acclaim for the film has not been universal, with others feeling Sorkin stumbles over the dialogue and dense history lesson.

“There’s a lot of deadly serious stuff in here — about war and peace, justice and racism, democracy and order — and a fair bit of silliness as well, some of it intentional,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times. “Here, he assembles a remarkable collection of performers in what might be described — again, not dismissively — as a Very Special Sober Episode of ‘Drunk History.’

“For a time, Steven Spielberg was attached to direct ‘The Trial Of The Chicago 7,’ and his absence is felt in the televisual staging: For all the sentimental uplift of this film’s closing minutes, Sorkin lacks the master’s skill–flaunted in ‘Lincoln’ and ‘The Post’–at enlivening gabby civics lessons,” A.A. Dowd writes in The A.V. Club. “The film could have used some of Spielberg’s craft and twinkly open-hearted conviction… or, perhaps conversely, more of Hoffman’s radical, down-with-The-Man sensibility.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” opens in theaters Friday and debuts on Netflix on Oct. 16. See more review excerpts below.

Steve Pond, TheWrap

Leave it to Aaron Sorkin to show that he can be a damn good action director, and then bring it all down to the words. And leave it to Sorkin — whose only other film as director, “Molly’s Game,” felt prescient in its portrayal of predatory men in Hollywood and beyond — to catch the mood of 2020 with a film he began working on many years beforehand. At a time of so much focus on police brutality, and a time when protest is being demonized as the election approaches, this story set 50 years ago feels oddly, frighteningly vital.

A.O. Scott, The New York Times

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” offers an absorbing account, in some ways alarming and in some ways reassuring, of an earlier moment of polarization and violent conflict. It isn’t just like now, but the analogies are enough to get you thinking about what happens in a democracy when state power confronts popular dissent. A loud, chaotic mess. A tragedy and a farce. And that’s if we’re lucky.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

He can also become fantastically ponderous, bloated with finger-waggingly self-important liberal patriotism. Sadly, that is the tone with this exasperatingly dull, dramatically inert and faintly misjudged re-creation of the “Chicago Seven” trial in the US, which Sorkin has written and directed.

Leah Greenblatt, EW.com

There are certain things the words “written and directed by Aaron Sorkin” almost seem to guarantee: Will there be a few good men, and some very bad ones too? Will it be talky and timely and speak (and speak and speak) truth to power? “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (on Netflix Oct. 16) delivers exactly that sort of Sorkin-us Maximus, in both the best and worst sense — a remarkably relevant story, smartly told, but with certain blind spots and pitfalls: broad strokes, rhetorical grandstanding, the tendency to overstuff an already load-bearing tale.

Stephanie Zacharek, TIME

I can hear what some of you are thinking: This movie is just two-hours-plus of men talking; who wants to watch that? I, too, dread movies about talking men, but the “Trial of the Chicago 7” won me over in its first, fleet 10 minutes. In places, it’s unapologetically charming, particularly when it focuses on Hoffman and his sidekick, Jerry Rubin.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

Ultimately, Sorkin seems less interested in the actual politics of any of his seven than in the way their flipped bird to the establishment facilitates his own taste for zingers, clever comebacks, and grandstanding. Parallels to the present aside, “Trial Of The Chicago 7” is ultimately more timeless than timely in its flaws and conventions. Which is to say that some things sadly never go out of fashion, like perversions of justice and eleventh hour surprise witnesses in legal dramas.

Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun Times

Certain events are rearranged from the factual timelines, and yes, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” exercises poetic license. This is not a documentary; it’s a dramatization of events that resonates with great power while containing essential truths, and it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t a deep-dive into the Chicago 7 drama, nor even particularly deep in its sociopolitical critique. With its blaring score and breathless chatter about miscarriages of justice, the pace is downright algorithmic. But if you’re going to make an old-school courtroom drama with decades of precedent behind you, there are few more effective vessels.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

It is meant to spark conversation about how far we’ve come since the riots of 1968 and subsequent trial in Chicago of the men accused of conspiring to provoke violence in the streets. And it is an accomplished ensemble piece, thick with great performances pushing for space in the same frame. The weight of the subject matter combined with the intensity of the acting here will be more than enough for some people, and I expect a few awards-giving bodies, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all felt a little too refined and manufactured. That Sorkin sense that everyone knows exactly what to say and do in any given situation, even as they express doubt with perfect diction and vocabulary, fits perfectly for a story like the invention of Facebook in “The Social Network” or even the birth of Apple in “Steve Jobs,” but the protest movement and the government’s attempt to quell it should be more organic than this film ever even flirts with being. It looks and sounds great, but should it?