Aaron Sorkin must be an actor’s dream of an auteur. To find yourself cast in a Sorkin project is to accept the inevitability of a-mile-a-minute dialogue and barn-burning idealistic speeches—a perfectly reasonable excuse to chew the hell out of some scenery. And what better setting for Sorkin’s most enduring tics than a politically charged courtroom? His latest movie, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, follows the eight (more on that later) ’60s counterculture figures who were put on trial following the violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. You can count on Sorkin, never one for subtlety, to draw parallels between the leftist factions who stood up to both militaristic police and a corrupt administration in the 1960s and the hell we’re living through today.
As for the actors, you can count on The Trial of the Chicago 7’s star-studded cast to (mostly) deliver the goods. But who stands out? Below, I’ll judge the performances by the most prominent members of Sorkin’s stacked ensemble and then deliver an impartial verdict. (Well, as impartial as a self-professed Jeremy Strong superfan can be, but please don’t call for a mistrial.) These are your Trial of the Chicago 7 character rankings.
14. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne)
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really “get” Eddie Redmayne, whose Best Actor Oscar belies a rather unimpressive body of work. (If he deserved an Oscar for anything, it was his role in Jupiter Ascending.) But Redmayne does himself no favors here as Tom Hayden, an anti-war student organizer who’s one of the activists standing trial. Redmayne struggles to hide his English accent—it sounds like he’s going through the entire movie with a spoonful of peanut butter on the roof of his mouth. It’s a woeful performance in a film otherwise filled with great ones.
But hey, I’m sure Redmayne is a nice enough dude in real—
Ah … never mind.
13. Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty)
Weiner and Froines, the only defendants who were acquitted, understand that they were tried so that the government could seem somewhat lenient in its prosecution of the protesters. Or, as Weiner put it in court, “This is the Academy Awards of protests, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor just to be nominated.” Naturally, then, Robbins and Flaherty don’t have nearly as much meat on their roles as the rest of the ensemble. But keep an eye out for Robbins: After a slimy supporting turn in The Assistant and a brief appearance as an incel possibly influenced by demons on the first season of CBS’s Evil, he’s shaping up to be an exciting utility player.
12. Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Gordon-Levitt is handed a quintessential Sorkin role as the prosecuting attorney who slowly begins to grow a conscience and wonder What Exactly He’s Fighting For. Sorkin is certainly within his rights to take some creative liberties, and the tweaks he makes to Schultz, described in real life as “the government’s pit bull,” are some of his biggest indulgences. This kind of political idealism—you don’t even want to know how Sorkin would script Donald Trump leaving the White House—feels even more tired in 2020. Gordon-Levitt does his best, but between The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the underwhelming Project Power, he recently just has me thinking that he needs to get some more worthwhile roles.
11. Undercover Officer Daphne O’Connor (Caitlin FitzGerald)
FitzGerald’s character is the only woman on this ranking—take it up with Sorkin, who famously struggles to write female characters—and including her at all even feels like a stretch. But I think you’ll understand why O’Connor made the cut: You see, she goes undercover during the DNC protests by seducing Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong. For all you Succession-heads out there, that means FitzGerald—who plays Roman’s sorta-girlfriend Tabitha on the HBO series—is flirting with Kendall Roy. Their on-screen dynamic was surprisingly intriguing. I ship it for Season 3.
10. Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp)
Sharp is best known for his theater work, having become the youngest winner of a Best Actor Tony Award for his performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in 2015. Here, as Rennie Davis, who’s essentially the right hand of Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, Sharp is a serviceable—if not entirely memorable—presence. The best thing I can say about his performance is that, unlike Redmayne, you wouldn’t have had any clue from his accent work that he’s English.
9. Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman)
Weinglass is a tad overshadowed by Mark Rylance’s William Kunstler, who is the other attorney representing the Chicago 7. But the role fits right into Shenkman’s wheelhouse. As one of Hollywood’s finest That Guys, Shenkman is best known for his supporting turns on television (Billions, The Night Of, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Royal Pains), where he does solid work on the margins and gracefully shares the screen with comparative heavyweights. (He’s perfect on Billions as Paul Giamatti’s best and, frankly, only friend.) That certainly works in Sorkin’s film, and that’s not meant as a slight: Every star-studded ensemble needs its Andre Iguodala.
8. Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)
The eighth defendant in the Chicago 7 case was Black Panther leader Bobby Seale—more on him later—and supporting him in court was his second-in-command, Fred Hampton. As played by Harrison, Hampton is barely able to bottle his rage against a system—and a judge—with clear prejudices. The actor carries much of that indignation in his expressive eyes, which were used to excellent effect in Neon’s criminally underseen social thriller Luce. Between Luce, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Waves, Harrison is a star on the rise. If he wasn’t on your radar yet, consider this a wake-up call.
7. Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton)
This is what you call a flex. Keaton shows up in just two scenes, where the former attorney general reaffirms that the intelligence gathered by the Johnson administration concluded that the Chicago Police Department instigated the violence against the DNC protesters, not the other way around. Keaton is there mostly just to exude swagger and charm: Ramsey Clark testifying against Richard Nixon’s cronies is a man in full “eff you” mode. Keaton can nail that tone in his sleep. After all, he wasn’t just Batman—he pulled off Bruce Wayne, too.
6. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch)
Dellinger seems like an outlier among the other protesters on trial: He’s a former Boy Scout and family man. But Dellinger is also a pacifist, and Lynch, one of our most underappreciated character actors, does a great job capturing his humanity. The performance is especially impressive when you consider that, arguably, Lynch’s most high-profile role is as the prime suspect in David Fincher’s Zodiac. From a possible serial killer to a nonviolent protester: John Carroll Lynch can do it all.
5. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)
From Aquaman and Watchmen (for which he won an Emmy) to upcoming roles in Candyman, The Matrix 4, and George Miller’s Furiosa prequel, Abdul-Mateen is having a moment. He brings the right level of resentment and pride in Sorkin’s film, as Seale is forced to stand trial even though his lawyer has fallen ill—he refuses to have Kunstler and Weinglass represent him—culminating in a brutal sequence where Judge Julius Hoffman has the defendant bound and gagged in court.
The real issue with Seale’s appearance in the film has nothing to do with Abdul-Mateen’s performance, but rather, what Sorkin fails to do with it. As Adam Nayman wrote in his review of the film for The Ringer, “After placing his tragic, defiant African American character on display so that we can shake our heads at his treatment, the director is free to return to the seriocomic bickering between movie stars that is his specialty. … While The Trial of the Chicago 7 may not be an all-time offender in the field of movies that mobilize Black suffering to trouble the consciences of white characters, it edges close to that territory.”
4. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance)
Rylance gives an understated performance, showing Kunstler’s growing exasperation with the broken system he’s fighting against, in a movie that’s clearly trying to grab the attention of the Oscars. What else is new?
3. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen)
Having Sasha Baron Cohen in a prominent role in an Aaron Sorkin movie was always going to be The Trial of the Chicago 7’s X factor. Cohen doesn’t quite have the range of other comedians turned dramatic actors, but thankfully, the character of Abbie Hoffman only feels a few degrees removed from his most iconic pranksters. The real-life Hoffman, a cofounder of the Youth International Party (or “Yippies”) was savvy: hamming it up for the cameras and working his audiences like a seasoned stand-up performer. I’m just gonna have to deduct points for—in what’s an unfortunate recurring theme of the movie—some of Cohen’s dodgy accent work. Hoffman is supposed to be a Massachusetts native, and Cohen doesn’t quite sound like a convincing Dunkin’ Donuts patron.
2. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong)
Joining Hoffman as the coleader of the Yippies is Rubin, the most stoned dude in America—if Strong’s performance has any historical bearing. Given that Strong is a man who always wants to go full Method—this is not a joke, he wanted to actually be tear-gassed in The Trial of the Chicago 7—I can only assume that his brain fluid was replaced with bong water. Rubin is no Kendall Roy—what could be?—but Strong’s performance is yet more proof that he’s a national treasure.
We must protect Strong as intently as (definitely stoned) Jerry Rubin protects an egg that’s thrown at him before the first day in court.
1. Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella)
I don’t care if this is a transparent play to get an Oscar: Langella is straight-up phenomenal. “Love” is a hard word to use, considering he plays a racist judge, but Langella is terrific in highlighting the danger in allowing incompetent and unqualified men to wield and abuse power. (I wonder who was on Sorkin’s mind.) If this is what gets Langella his second Oscar nomination, it’ll be more than earned—though, like Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant, we’ll all know this would be an Academy mea culpa for ignoring his performance as Skeletor in the ’80s.