‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Is Ripe for Oscar Attention, but Packed Ensemble Could Make for Tricky Acting Campaign

Aaron Sorkin's historical drama appears to be assured nominations but how far can it go for Netflix?

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Photo courtesy of Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7” from writer and director Aaron Sorkin, a project that has circled Hollywood for more than a decade, has landed in the awards race. The film screened virtually on Tuesday evening before a group of critics, journalists and bloggers.

Featuring a hardy ensemble with some of the industry’s most gifted actors — Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Michael Keaton and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. — the historical drama has been at the top of minds of Oscar prospects for months. With an upcoming presidential election and an impending SCOTUS battle on the horizon, it could be one of the rare cases in which a film’s awards chances could tie closely to the mood of the country.

Distributed by Netflix, the film tells the story of the “Chicago 7,” a group of seven individuals that were charged by the federal government with conspiracy and inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the trial that followed that became one of the most infamous in American history.

Critics and awards pundits will see the shades of some of cinema’s most prolific courtroom dramas embedded in Sorkin’s interpretation. I was able to catch elements of Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” with sprinkles of “The Verdict” and an aroma of “12 Angry Men,” both from Sidney Lumet. There are structural callbacks to Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men,” which Sorkin adapted from his own play. Eliciting strong reactions from the viewer, Academy voter, especially those sensitive to criminal injustices, are likely to gravitate towards the subject.

One of the critical elements to credit “Chicago 7’s” success is the dedication and inventiveness of its actors. The SAG awards nominating committee looks likely to check this off for the coveted cast ensemble category when filling out their ballots. With such a broad cast of their colleagues across film and television, it could be one of the “no-brainers” coming. One of the daunting questions is whether it can score a few acting nominations, and where its cast should campaign. The film will be another addition to the growing list of features this year — along with “One Night in Miami” — that’s placed into the “look back at ‘Spotlight'” box, and how to maneuver what seems to be a wide-open supporting actor field with many possibilities.

Frank Langella, who landed Oscar’s attention in 2008 with a nomination as Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” is despicably vile as Judge Julius Hoffman. Holding nothing back, he’s sure to evoke some of the most turbulent tremors from the viewers. A natural inclination may be that he’s “too unlikable” and the “villains” that find their way into the awards roundtable tend to be comically cheeky (Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”), terrifyingly commanding (Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”) or entertainingly psychotic (Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”).

Langella has no redemption arc or something that has the audience saying, “I hate that I like him so much.” It’s pretty clear where you are with him, and it doesn’t let up. With that said, there are examples where the foul and wicked traits of a character still find notoriety with the Academy. Some examples include Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List,” Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or Mo’Nique in “Precious,” and those are considered some of the finest performances in film history.

The most accessible road for acting nominations may lie within Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman and Rylance’s William Kunstler. Cohen, once nominated for adapted screenplay for “Borat,” and on the cusp of that year’s best actor race, checks all the boxes for an acting nominee. He has “the scene” that would play in his Oscar clip, the most memorable line of the film and acts as scene-stealing comic relief in a movie that’s handling grave subject matter. When it comes to Oscar-winner Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”), his poised, unwavering commitment never misses a beat, and with industry respect that runs deep, he could indeed find himself back in the conversation. It should be noted that Rylance has failed to garner Academy recognition in a large ensemble; when he was on the circuit for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” the film didn’t earn any acting nominations.

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Courtesy of Netflix

Critics and casual moviegoers are going to have a different “standout” from the cast. From an awards perspective, that makes for an incredibly tricky campaign strategy to execute. “Spotlight” found its representation with Mark Ruffalo, who was nominated for best supporting actor, and other large cast ensemble films like “Crash” (Matt Dillon) and “Gosford Park” (Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith) were able to find their consensus picks in their respective years. However, for every one of those gains, there are a few losses to cite, such as the two later “Lord of the Rings” films, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” along with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Even the courtroom dramas face an uphill battle, as seen in those above “12 Angry Men,” the sizeable all-male cast couldn’t muster any acting nominations, even after the Golden Globes nominated Henry Fonda in lead and Lee J. Cobb in supporting.

With all that said, the acting branch, which is the largest of the Academy, might get behind the film, which will help in its best picture chances. Even if all the actors fail to gain Academy recognition, we just came off the year when “Parasite” won best picture without any acting nominations. There have been 12 films total in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards that have managed to take the top prize without key mentions for acting including “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Braveheart” and “The Last Emperor.”

On the writing side, the original screenplay possibilities don’t seem as deep as adapted, and Sorkin could wiggle his way to his first nomination in that category. Composer Daniel Pemberton, who has collaborated with Sorkin before on projects such as “Steve Jobs,” orchestrates a tension-filled score that will keep you in your seat stirring. A new song, co-written by musician Celeste, titled “Hear My Voice,” could hit nicely with the music branch. Alan Baumgarten’s editing is the film’s most vital technical merit and will be very competitive in that space. Simultaneously, Shane Valentino and Andrew Baseman’s production and set design will hope to go the way of Oscar-winning courtroom dramas like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Susan Lyall’s costumes are quite impressive, but that branch has not typically gone to the 1960s very often, especially with a massive male-centric cast. Obviously, “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood,” which takes place in 1969, found its way into the lineup but came up short to “Little Women” just this past year. Makeup and hairstyling could slice through some of the more conventional nominees that could be coming, mainly if focusing on the “hairstyling” piece, which dazzles with Cohen and Rylance in particular.

The project has had multiple inceptions and false starts after Sorkin wrote the script in 2007. After moving through the hands of Steven Spielberg and other rumored filmmakers such as Paul Greengrass, Sorkin signed on to direct the film in 2018 following his directing debut with “Molly’s Game.” This could be his biggest bout for the director’s lineup, and he just might get there. As a matter of fact, the film has the technical and spiritual qualities of a best picture winner. Where “Roma” failed, will “The Trial of the Chicago 7” succeed? Five more months to go.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” will be released on Netflix on Oct. 16.