The project that has finally emerged as The Trial of the Chicago 7, a direct-to-Netflix that was supposed to be Paramount's big awards push and the inaugural film of Oscar movie season back in the Before Times, has been percolating since 2006. That was when Steven Spielberg commissioned Aaron Sorkin to write a film based on, well, the trial of the Chicago 7, the group of disparate and unrelated activists who were all indicted for conspiracy to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, despite having between them no single vision for the correct future of leftist revolutionary energy during that most exceptionally fraught year. The seven men - reduced from eight, after the stupefying bullshit of pretending that Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the movie) had anything whatsoever to do with this proved too much even for the hostile, conservative Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) - were put on trial at the behest of Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), with the appearance that the Nixon administration was hoping to put the youth anti-war protest movement itself on trial by publicly humiliating some of the movement's leading lights. The defendants were more than ready to match that with their own public humiliation, treating the courtroom and the trial as the subjects of considerably mockery over the course of the months.

Somewhere along the line, Spielberg lost interest, and the project, several drafts later, was brought in under the direction of Sorkin himself, three years after making his debut in that capacity with the okay poker procedural Molly's Game. That film had, I would say, a pretty strong script (though one that would have benefited from a director willing to clear out some deadwood), and some pretty pedestrian filmmaking; it didn't suggest that Sorkin had been paying all that much attention on the sets where the likes of Rob Reiner and David Fincher and Danny Boyle were bringing life to his words, and that he had a "good enough" attitude to things like pacing and camera placement. But Molly's Game was a pretty fun and snappy script, and that was enough to keep things moving along.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 does not have a fun nor a snappy script; it is, not to put too fine a point on it, maybe the most lifeless and unengagingly self-serious feature film Sorkin has written. This is very much the kind of thing that comes about because someone wants to make sure we learn a good lesson about history, civic responsibility, and the roots of the modern American culture war, and is so concerned about having his characters state tiny lectures to that effect that he fails to make them interesting or colorful people. This is writing that shows off all of Sorkin's very worst tics as a writer, particularly his tendency to use long speeches as mechanisms to cue up other speeches, and his stunted imagination for how to do politics (it is real fucking strange to me that a man with a fetish for electoralism and an obvious dislike for radicalism wrote something that's unabashedly pro-Black Panthers, but maybe it's because Seale leaves the movie earlier enough that the author doesn't really have to deal with that). Simultaneously, it finds his greatest strengths at a low ebb: other than the insults, there are no lines of dialogue that have the dancing, tongue-tripping spectacle of his best writing, where clause tumbles upon clause, always in grammatically-flawless constructions that feel like relay races. And the characters are shockingly colorless, given how distinct and crisp the original men were. It's extremely obvious that Sorkin's favorite was Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), though for plot purposes, he obliges himself to split his attention between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne); the former gets all of the snark and zingers, the latter gets all of the scolding and exposition.

But even Hoffman doesn't end up feeling like a human with a personality and a backstory, he feels like a collection of '60s radical clichés, and if he can't break through the plodding writing, there's no help at all for characters who are so much less vivid (which is basically all of them, other than the ill-tempered judge, and that's just because he's a caricatured asshole). With seven defendants, Seale, a judge, four lawyers, and for some dramtically indefensible reason Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), The Trial of the Chicago 7 has more characters to balance than it can reasonably handle, even with a luxurious 129-minute running time to fill. And it makes this even worse by trying to have several different angles into the action: the battle of ideological commitments waged by Hoffman and Hayden, leftist sectarians thrown into common cause through the trial; the courtroom procedural of lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) methodically hammering at the succession of brick walls Judge Hoffman is putting in front of him; the weird little undernourished dog-end of a plot where young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries his best to secure jail time for the defendants while also finding himself admiring their conviction. And this ignores the flashbacks depicting the summer of '68, which are wedged in pretty much any place they can be reasonably motivated by testimony.

It's a big, sprawling march through some bad history and shamefully naïve political arguments, neither of which would especially annoy me if it wasn't so obvious that political history was the main purpose of the film. But I think there was still probably hope - the dialogue isn't anywhere close to Sorkin's best, but the man who broke through so many years ago with A Few Good Men hasn't entirely forgotten how to write the staccato fencing-match rhythms of a courtroom drama, and while Judge Hoffman is a singularly unimaginative figure, he gets plenty of good huffing and puffing in. The problem is that, as off his game as Sorkin-the-writer is this time around, Sorkin-the-director is just as drab and flat as he was with Molly's Game, and arguably even worse - there, he at least got some great performances out of the cast. Here, despite a ridiculously overstocked collection of top-tier character actors, there's not a single performance that has any layers to it at all, really; in a pinch, I might vote for John Carroll Lynch, playing the sensible pacifist David Dellinger, as the only person who gets things out of the script that weren't there. Mostly, the actors are just playing their roles in the most obvious way possible, based on how they were written; Abdul-Mateen, Rylance, Langella, and Jeremy Strong (as perma-stoned Yippie leader Jerry Rubin) are all perfectly fine, but in a straightforward, just-read-the-lines way; Baron Cohen has revealed that he was spooked by his character's distinct, complicated American accent, and you can sort of see that in how high his voicework lies in the hierarchy of choices he's making, but he's mostly fine, too. Redmayne is somehow overplaying milquetoast blandness, and Gordon-Levitt, who looks like he has been coated in wax, is substantially underplaying it.

Meanwhile, the film has been lacquered in the blandest kind of prestige filmmaking aesthetic. Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is a passable impersonation of Janusz Kamiński, all shafts of dusty light in the court and a hint of yellow glow in the night scenes, but this leaves it feeling generic and safe; Daniel Pemberton's score obnoxiously sweeps in to let us know when the be filled with hope for American liberalism, and when to feel disgusted by American authoritarianism, shamelessly plugging in emotions that the rest of the filmmaking isn't. Just about the only spark of creativity lies in the editing, when it engineers busy, addled montages of '60s signifiers, or when it cuts around between the trial and the riots - and this creativity is like as not to be a detriment to the film as not, given the manic sloppiness of some of these sequences.

It is, all told, pretty comprehensively mediocre, a slab of polished, lifeless Oscarbait that's all the more unlikable for taking such a trite approach to such wannabe-radial material. It feels like the apotheosis of everything that's ever been bad about Aaron Sorkin, stripped bare of anything that's ever been good, and my only comfort with any of it is the optimism that this has to be the worst-case scenario for him as a writer, and hopefully even as a director.