Judge Netflix’s ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ on the strength of Langella’s performance

Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP

I liked Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” for the most part. The writing was a bit grandiose and self-important, a tendency that the movie’s writer-director, Aaron Sorkin, has turned into a style. But he structured the late 1960s story strategically, even if he decided not to worry about historical accuracy. And he didn’t shove the relevance of the issues of the trial — political polarization, protests, and the police — in our faces. The movie is theatrical, but not pushy.

Two performances jumped out at me throughout the movie, one very good, the other, I think, not so very good.


As Judge Julius Hoffman, Frank Langella once again showed us why he is among the best actors out there. His hunger to convict the young men and his contempt for their lawyers are palpable, and his disgust with Black defendant Bobby Seale (until Seale’s case is declared a mistrial) is shocking, building up to the moment when he has the Black Panther bound and gagged.

As we’re learning all over again with the hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, we can’t assume that a judge will be impartial — and Langella drives home Hoffman’s bias. His justice is so entitled he doesn’t even try to hide his unfairness. He is, in some ways, like a big baby, his gavel a toy he can’t stop playing with. As the defendants provoke him, he keeps losing his cool, unable to stop himself from participating in their game. They offend him personally. I felt the same way after seeing Langella in “Starting Out in the Evening”; he is a powerhouse.

On the other hand, I was continually distracted by Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman — even though I’ve loved Cohen both as a comic and as a dramatic performer. As is often said, “it’s a clever bit of casting,” because Cohen’s image as a sardonic clown overlaps with Hoffman’s image as a sardonic clown. I get the idea. But for me, Cohen never fit in with the rest of the movie. Partly, he kept stopping me because of his accent, which never quite seemed natural to my ears. Also, he appeared too tall, and far too old — he’s 49 — to be playing Hoffman in his early 30s. I think a less well-known face might have been a better choice in this case.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.