|Aaron Sorkin on the set|
|Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin|
|The Chicago 7 minus David Dellinger|
|Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin|
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 B- USA Great Britain India (129 mi) 2020 ‘Scope d: Aaron Sorkin
A look back at a moment in history, at the height of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, when the United States government tried to put a list of prominent outspoken activists who barely knew each other on trial for conspiring to initiate violent riots in Chicago during an eventful summer of 1968 simultaneous to the election of the Democratic candidate for President, Hubert Humphrey, who vowed to continue the war and was subsequently annihilated by Richard Nixon in the election (while the popular vote was close, Nixon won by over 100 Electoral votes), bringing in a new wave of repressive tactics, with the intention of removing the leftist guard, namely Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), eventually dropped from the case in a mistrial, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), who comes across clean as a boy scout, Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), a nebulous, shadowy character, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), the ever peaceful conscientious objector who slugs a federal marshal in court, crossing into absurdity, as that’s something he would never have done, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), ever confrontational, given a Lenny Bruce style stand-up comedic role, touring college campuses during the trial to raise money for the defense, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), second banana to Hoffman, always stoned, John Froines, and Lee Weiner, two add-ons who were eventually acquitted, who were all viewed as a threat to the government. While they organized protest marches and rock concerts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, clashes broke out between protesters and the police turning into a full-scale riot, complete with tear gas and police beatings. The press, already there to cover the Democratic convention, captured the overreaction by police and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s handling of the situation. Due to the embarrassment brought to the city for its own outrageous behavior, eight men and two defense counselors were blamed as scapegoats. The trial itself lasted 10-months, received heightened press coverage, becoming something of a public spectacle, where the 60’s counterculture movement was really on trial, so they brought in various artists to testify by performing anti-war songs, including Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and Country Joe McDonald, also writers Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg testified, as well as Timothy Leary and Jesse Jackson. The trial itself was nothing short of a fiasco, filled with disruptions, outbursts, histrionics, and accusations, where the film version is a rather homogenized and cleaned-up version of what actually happened, as any trial that carried on as long as this one did, scrutinized by daily press briefings, was actually much more ostentatiously out of control than is suggested here, with many more threats from the bench from constant interruptions, routinely handing out a total of 159 contempt citations, citing lead attorney William Kunstler with four years in prison for addressing him as “Mr. Hoffman” instead of “Your Honor,” Abbie Hoffman received 8 months for laughing in court, Tom Hayden one year for protesting the gag and shackle treatment of defendant Bobby Seale, and Lee Weiner two months for refusing to stand when Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) entered the courtroom, a judge who had previously ruled in the Lenny Bruce censorship trials. Perhaps the most egregious judicial offense was ordering barbers of the Cook County Jail to cut the long hair of the defendants and defense attorneys that he found so offensive. The film didn’t get into the senility of the judge, age 74, a concern many had at the time. In fact there were so many judicial errors committed during the trial that all convictions and numerous contempt citations were quickly overturned on appeal, with no new charges filed, finding the judge had exhibited a “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense,” making the whole trial a mockery of justice. This was clearly evident to the public and the press even as the trial was dragging on, not so much to viewers of this film, which isn’t in the same league as Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and compares poorly to Brett Morgen’s animated CHICAGO 10 (2007) which uses actual trial transcripts, as opposed to Sorkin straining credulity through artistic license by offering a more polite and conciliatory rewrite of history that diffuses the hard corps radicalism of the times with an invented bipartisan utopia, where he just never gets the tone right, veering into the ridiculous and the absurd.
Like other Sorkin movies, including David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), the opening sequence is usually the most riveting moment in the film, which is the case here as well. Shocking viewers at the outset is the Kafkaesque moment when a politically motivated Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) sends for U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and his leading federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (straight arrow Joseph Gordon-Levitt), basically assigning them the case, using the untested Rap Brown Law, which had been tagged onto the Civil Rights Bill earlier that year by conservative southern Senators making it illegal to cross state lines in order to incite a riot, a blatant attempt to suppress black activism. What stands out, however, is the rabidly zealous nature of Mitchell who is hellbent on sending these leftist radicals to jail, viewing the trial as a kind of payback. But it’s a contrast in cultural attitudes and understandings, where under the scrutiny of Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton, a wild card) as Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, they believed no crimes were committed, and that any evidence of riots were instigated by the Chicago police. Yet under Nixon as President, his new Attorney General John Mitchell was livid about finding wrongdoing even when there was none to be found, with history suggesting they were the actual wrongdoers, as 48 top government officials were eventually convicted of crimes in the coverup of Watergate, including John Mitchell, who was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury while sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison, with the President resigning in disgrace before an inevitable impeachment. While this sequence does beg the question, who starts riots on the streets, police or the protesters, the question is still relevant today, with Trump’s Attorney General William Barr threatening to revive this same Rap Brown Law against George Floyd protesters, believing crossing state lines to incite violence is a federal crime, but stopped short when it was discovered right-wing extremists actually infiltrated the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests to commit violent acts in order to undermine their public standing. Clearly this is governmental overreach, setting boundaries on first amendment rights by suppressing the rights of dissent, mirroring Trump’s own Presidential declaration in 2017 that the press was the enemy of the people, speaking the typical jargon of autocrats and dictators. With this opening conversation, however, the tone is set, subsequently introducing the major players, who appear without much of a build-up, where the idea of a 60’s counterculture may be foreign to viewing audiences half a century later. Battle lines were tested in the summer of 1968, still struggling with enforcing Civil Rights legislation, dazed by the riotous aftermath of political assassinations, wearied by an unpopular war in Vietnam causing more than a thousand deaths per month, stunned by a rejection of women’s rights and female empowerment in the workplace, while bigotry and age-old prejudices were being challenged by a younger generation that rejected those demeaning practices outright, even as they continued to be practiced throughout mainstream society and in all middle-class homes. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were household names to anyone growing up, as they advocated a different kind of freedom than the conservatism of the 50’s, with Hoffman publishing Steal This Book, which may as well be an irreverent counterculture guide to activism, while Rubin’s DO IT!: Scenarios of the Revolution was less popular, yet still culturally impactive, leading two decades later to Nike’s massive advertising campaign, “Just do it.” Drugs and rock music were the real cultural signposts, along with Timothy Leary’s psychedelic manta, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” all of which advocated a new type of thinking. This background is streamlined out of the film, yet it explains why ten thousand strangers would travel to Chicago to camp out in the city parks without permission during the Democratic convention, facing a police-orchestrated riot as anti-war protesters tried to demonstrate for a candidate that would advocate an end to the Vietnam War. Little did they know they would get their heads bashed in.
What inevitably happens with Hollywood rewrites of history is that they bear so little in common with actual history, and Sorkin fails to deliver, toning down the rhetoric and flippant comments, removing the radical element, attributing less offensive words at the trial that were never spoken, bringing a Black Panther presence into the courtroom when none existed, even suggesting Fred Hampton sitting behind him acted as Bobby Seale’s attorney, which is completely fabricated, then altering the timeline of Fred Hampton’s murder, The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971). While there’s some element of truth to Bobby Seale’s comportment in the courtroom, continually interrupting, demanding to act in his own defense because his own lawyer is sick in the hospital, a motion continually refused by the judge, who wrongly links him to William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), whose calm, laid-back demeanor couldn’t be farther from the flamboyance of Kunstler, the attorney for the other 7 defendants, despite Kunstler’s repeated insistence that he does not represent Seale, who is eventually led out of the chambers where he is brutally beaten, shackled, and gagged, and brought back into the courtroom, where the prosecution requests a mistrial. In truth this pattern continued for several days, with Seale continually making muffled sounds under his gag, before a mistrial was declared and Seale was removed from the case, but he was immediately imprisoned to serve four years for 16 counts of contempt of court. It was a month after the mistrial when Fred Hampton was murdered. Certainly one of the eye-openers of the trial was the degree that each defendant was undermined by an undercover cop assigned directly to them, befriending them, recording them, turning their words against them in the courtroom, which was also the case with Fred Hampton, as it led to his death. This courtroom testimony revealed the presence of undercover FBI programs known as COINTELPRO, a secret spy operation against American citizens, used to target and smear Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders as well. Despite this disinformation campaign designed to destroy reputations, Sorkin finds humor, inventing a situation where Jerry Rubin falls madly in love with his female undercover cop, still thinking wistfully about her even after she’s gone. Similarly, Sorkin concocts an absurd scenario where Rubin and Hoffman accidentally run into Richard Schultz with his two young daughters, where Hoffman allegedly tells the girls “Your dad’s a good guy,” then telling Schultz, “We don’t have any beef with you. We know you’re doing your job and you don’t think we’re criminals.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as they were declared enemies, but in the liberal world of Hollywood, no divide is too large, as all fractured relationships can be healed. Mirroring events of today, all the defendants of the trial would rage against the unethical practices of the FBI and systemic police brutality, decrying systemic racism in the criminal legal system, yet in Sorkin’s world it’s just a case of a few bad apples creating the appearance of rot, suggesting everything can be fixed. It’s a cheap catharsis for naïve viewers. One would have to ask, why did the government insist on burying the reports that confirmed most of the damage done in the 1968 Democratic convention disruptions was the result of excessive police violence, not the behavior of the protestors? Or how could the blatant mistreatment of Bobby Seale happen in an American courtroom? The hard truth is the system works as it was intended, repressing the existence of anyone who poses a threat to existing norms of wealth, property rights, and white advantages, where white supremacy has been entrenched into the status quo long before the Civil War. Does anyone really think a few reforms can alter what hundreds of years have established as precedent? Radicals in that era advocated a complete overthrow of the system. Referring to the United States as Amerika, compiling detailed instructions on how to lead an armed struggle against the police, calling them “pigs,” Abbie Hoffman writes in his book, “We are not interested in the greening of Amerika, except for the grass that will cover its grave.”
Afterword by Tom Hayden, from Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven, edited by Jon Wiener, 2006 (pdf)