I’m taking a rare break from this column’s usual offerings of sci-fi/fantasy/horror content to cross examine writer/director Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin’s latest courtroom drama based on the surreal “Trial of the “Chicago 7” (nearly eight, until unrepresented defendant Bobby Seale’s charge was nullified). This famed court case is a collision of establishment and counterculture, as it involved the prosecution of a group of antiwar protesters who sought to storm the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the tumultuous year of 1968.
****52-YEAR OLD SPOILERS!****
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pitch-perfect as the young buttoned-up prosector Richard Schultz, and one-time “Dracula” star Frank Langella is appropriately ogreish as Judge Julius Hoffman—no relation to defendant, yippie/flower-power architect Abbie Hoffman (a chameleonic Sacha Baron Cohen), as both the real-life trial and movie humorously point out. The ‘two Hoffmans’ are the opposing magnetic poles of the trial; with Judge Julius representing draconian Nixonian orthodoxy, while defendant Abbie is the almost-literal embodiment of late 1960s counterculture.
Hoffman, along with yippie cofounder Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the court’s jesters; the two circus clowns whose many jokes, sight gags and theatrical displays are cleverly aimed to point out the absurdity of this sham “political trial”—which put the counterculture itself on trial; the defendants were merely its long-haired, flower-power faces.
Note: I once read Jerry Rubin’s book, “Do It” (1970), which is less biographical and more a stream-of-consciousness collection of catchphrases, witticisms and contradictions. A fascinating read, as it offers an uncensored look into the heart of 1960s counterculture. Rubin would later famously sell out in his 30s, and would go on to sell insurance. He was killed when a car struck him near UCLA in 1994.
We see the pain behind the antics when the clownish Hoffman takes the witness stand, and the bitterness seethes. Sacha Baron Cohen, much like the late Robin Williams, made his name in comedy (finding fame with the fake Kazakhstani reporter “Borat”), yet he gives a powerful and layered dramatic performance as well. It’s no wonder that Cohen is one of the six Oscar nominations the film is up for this year.
Note: The real-life Abby Hoffman sadly took his own life in 1989, the same year he cameoed as a character very similar to himself in the Oliver Stone antiwar saga, “Born on the Fourth of July” (in my humble opinion, that film also offered Tom Cruise his best role to date).
In addition to Abbie Hoffman, another defendant is the cleaner-cut Tom Hayden (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne), who is the Robert Redford of the group—the gentile “All-American” boy that so many political movements in those days sought for legitimacy. Even the corrupt-as-hell Judge Hoffman suggests the savvy young Hayden might “become a productive member of society” someday. Hayden, through the course of the trial, is later revealed to have a bit more fire in his belly than his purposefully scrubbed court appearance suggests. The scene that brings the house down (and solidifies the true purpose behind the protests) is when Hayden methodically begins reading the names of all American soldiers lost in Vietnam directly into the court record.
Note: Tom Hayden would later have a very successful career in California state politics as well as a 17 year marriage to actress Jane Fonda, who was also demonized for her fervent antiwar stance as well as her seemingly sympathetic visit to North Vietnamese forces during the war.
The most unjustly persecuted defendant is Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale (brought to vivid life by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is lumped in with the other defendants, even though he was not part of their movement; much in the same way right-wing media often lumps Black Lives Matter in with AntiFa today. Seale is put on trial without defense counsel (his absent lawyer is later killed), and he is tied and gagged (in an American courtroom); forced to answer Judge Julius’ infuriating interrogations with only head movements—of which he gives a slow, defiant head shake of “no.”
After a month of such unconstitutional misrepresentation, Seale was eventually removed from the list of defendants (bringing the number down to the titular seven). Given the recent spike in racial tensions as well as ongoing recordings made of brutalities against blacks, the image of the bound, gagged, humiliated Seale (like something you’d see from Amnesty International) quickly becomes seared into a viewer’s brain. Yahya Abdul Mateen II gives a powerhouse performance with seemingly minimal effort.
Note: As the movie correctly points out, Seale effectively went to trial without representation; a direct violation of the US Constitution itself. In addition to being cleared of the Chicago 7 “conspiracy”, Seale was also acquitted on a murder charge he was facing in New Haven.
Despite the heavy, heady subject matter of the trial at hand, there are opportunities for gallows humor (beyond the antics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) through sly editing (particularly in our introduction to the characters) as well as the performance of John Carroll-Lynch, who plays David Dellinger. Dellinger is a balding, middle-aged family man and member of the Democratic establishment who appears to be an incongruous fit at the defendant’s table until his own ire is inflamed, and he later lashes out with the same passion we see in the others. I’ve been a fan of John Carroll-Lynch since 1996’s “Fargo,” and his role here fits perfectly within his wheelhouse.
Note: Dellinger’s name is often mispronounced by the judge as “Dillinger,” like the former 1930s gangster John Dillinger; there is also humor and irony mined from the ‘two Hoffmans’ in the courtroom as well.
Actor Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for the underrated “Bridge of Spies”) is also well cast as ACLU-appointed lead defense counsel William Kunstler (a tall order with seven defendants). Rylance’s Kunstler has a wry, weary cynic’s compassion about him that makes him a natural underdog, much like Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind”. Rylance, Cohen and Redmayne are the three powerhouse British actors who headline this almost unbearably American story.
The tide of the trial is seemingly turned by a ‘Deep Throat’-style witness testimony of former Attorney General Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton, in a pivotal role), who refutes the main prosecutorial claim that the riots at the Democratic National Convention were instigated by the defendants. As Clark points out, his own office concluded that it was the Chicago police who instigated the riots with excessive brutality, not the defendants. Responsibility for the riots was the crux of the prosecution’s case.
While the former AG’s testimony might seem like a last-minute game changer to those unfamiliar with the trial’s outcome, sadly, it was not—the defendants were eventually found guilty, though their case was thrown out on appeal (much of that due to the judge’s clear bias) and the trial’s results were nullified.
Some may draw parallels to the recent January 6th Capitol Riot (or coup attempt) in Washington DC, but the ends behind those means were very different; the Chicago 7 sought to end a bloody war in Vietnam—the DC rioters sought to nullify a fair and democratic election through force. Any superficial resemblance to both groups’ means is arguable, but their goals couldn’t be more opposite. The Chicago 7 were would-be martyrs or dangerous anarchists, depending on one’s political view, but Sorkin makes a clear case for his own support of the defendants, and that is as it should be; a good film should always offer a filmmaker’s perspective (even in a documentary), otherwise you might as well watch dry evening newscasts from YouTube archival footage.
One of the key differences between then and now was the draft; the system of essentially rounding up young American boys for military service in a seemingly pointless superpower-proxy war in Vietnam, thousands of miles away. The draft gave a life-or-death immediacy to the Vietnam war, which was far shorter than the current war in Afghanistan. Today’s US armed forces are all-volunteer, so young Americans today don’t live with the uncertainly and fear over whether or not their ‘number will come up,’ like some grim reaper’s lottery. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons today’s wars last so much longer. The movie made me wonder if Americans would have the stomachs (or deep-pockets) for 20 years of war in Afghanistan if US troops were still being involuntarily selected by draft boards…?
With “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” we are watching history through a lens—a lens of how those events shaped the similarly radicalized politics of today (on both sides). At 2 hours and 10 minutes, the story isn’t needlessly protracted (unlike the real event, which dragged on for months), but it should hold the attention of those with a keen interest in US political history as well as the fragility of modern US democracy. Ultimately, Aaron Sorkin’s movie doesn’t attempt to rewrite the courtroom drama genre, nor does it offer bags of overly stylized visual gimmicks (like too many movies made about the 1960s). “The Trial of the Chicago 7” delivers a true story with a bit of dramatic seasoning and an A-list cast giving their best to the material.
At the end of the day, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” pleases the court.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” can be safely streamed at home via Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 560,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have already received my second shot of Moderna vaccine), but it will take time for a healthy level of global immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not fully safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded (and unmasked) outings as much as possible. If fully vaccinated, some gatherings and less-crowded social events are possible.
Take care, follow CDC guidelines and be safe.