From Fact to Muddled Fiction

The Trial of the Chicago 7​, Netflix, 2 hr., 9 min., 2020

 

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7​ does for protest and radical politics what ​The Song of the South​ did for Black Americans. Like Sorkin, Walt Disney thought he was being respectful and understanding, but he had a head full of curdled mush about the Old South and happy, docile sharecroppers. Sorkin, creator of The West Wing​ and ​The Newsroom, may believe that he’s fairly depicted the protests of 1968 for an equally fraught 2020, but the movie compresses radical politics into his stunted political imagination.

The story begins just before the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where antiwar protests met with brutal police violence are broadcast across the country. Months later, the Nixon administration charges an all-star team of eight prominent radicals with conspiracy to start a riot. Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of Students for a Democratic Society and the Mobilization Against the War (Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp), pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Youth International Party (Yippies) founders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong). Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahyah Abdul Mateen II) was included despite having had no contact with any other defendant. Defending seven of the eight was radical lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).  

The trial became notorious for several reasons. Judge Julius Hoffman (a spectacularly malign Frank Langella) clearly favored the prosecution, routinely citing defendants and defense lawyers for contempt. Jurors regarded as the most sympathetic to the Seven were removed by Judge Hoffman. Seale was denied the representation he’d wanted, and after several arguments, Hoffman had Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom.  

Historical movies always exercise some dramatic license to make a better movie. The murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton occurred a month after Seale was dropped from the case, but Sorkin uses it to give Seale’s chaining and gagging added force. Sorkin efficiently shows how cops infiltrated the protestors and manipulated the jury, and he skillfully drops in some strong connections to modern-day events:  the cops removing their badges before clouting protestors, Kunstler asking a gagged Seale if he can breathe. 

Sorkin didn’t have to invent Judge Hoffman, who was even more​ awful than he’s depicted here.  He devotes a lot of time to former U.S. Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, played by Michael Keaton, who testifies that his Justice Department had previously decided that the case had no merit. After a lot of time debating legal technicalities and procedural outrages, Judge Hoffman rules the testimony irrelevant. And this sets up Sorkin’s first step into falsification and maligning the antiwar Left: his pacifist David Dellinger is moved to growl “You’re a thug” at Hoffman, and in an altercation, he punches out a marshal.  

There’s a huge difference between dramatic license and libel, and this isn’t dramatic license. David Dellinger was a committed pacifist who didn’t even throw a punch when, in the courtroom,  his daughter was manhandled by marshals and he interposed his body between them. All this scene does is malign him as a hypocrite. 

Sorkin’s most shocking omission was the defense’s bench of “State of Mind” witnesses. These were writers, counterculture leaders, musicians, and artists brought in to testify about why the protesters behaved as they did. These witnesses included Allen Ginsburg, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cora Weiss, Dick Gregory, Paul Krassner, Timothy Leary, and Norman Mailer—like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its prime, “more stars than there are in Heaven.” 

Today, in 2020, it’s easy to forget how strange this new culture seemed to most Americans. Sorkin could have portrayed a lot of 1960s-era protest with just their testimony, all of which was written for him already. They aren’t even mentioned​​ in this movie, beyond having Ginsburg ommmm his way through the riots as comic relief.  

Meanwhile, Sorkin hands friendly cliches to the prosecution.  Attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Sorkin’s “earnest conservative who believes in the law.” He second-guesses the case early on, and by the end of the film, he’s expressing admiration for the defendants. In real life, prosecutors Schultz and Thomas Foran were angry reactionaries who believed they were defending a proud nation from evil rot. 

But the moral catastrophe of The Trial of the Chicago 7​ is in Sorkin’s depiction of Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. To many, they represented oil-and-water aspects of the counterculture, but Sorkin turns this dichotomy into an endorsement of his own neoliberal politics. 

Hayden, co-founder of the SDS and the main author of the Port Huron Statement, was an Irish-Catholic intellectual with substantive inroads with the establishment. (He’d been invited to be an honorary pallbearer for Bobby Kennedy because RFK had admired him.) Even at his most radical, Hayden wanted The System to work the way it was supposed to. Abbie Hoffman was a Jewish firebrand with tremendous outrage, a hustler’s understanding of the various games, an inspired general of protest, and a prankster and stand-up comedian of considerable skill. 

Sorkin has Hayden complain to Hoffman that “for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you. They’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon… And so we’ll lose elections.” Hayden and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam had helped organize that Pentagon protest. Here, he’s just a mouthpiece for Sorkin, who loathes​ the counterculture of both the 1960s and the 2020s. He actually thinks this is doing Hayden a favor. 

The worst is forced upon Abbie Hoffman, whose eloquent, funny, charming, week-long testimony included, “Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.” When asked about conspiracy, he replied, “We couldn’t agree on lunch.”  Sorkin erases all of it and sticks “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that, right now, are populated by some not-so-wonderful people” into Hoffman’s mouth like a ball gag. Then Sorkin monkey-wrenches a pure-fiction climax where Hayden lets his freak-flag fly… by reading a list of soldiers killed in Vietnam, as the courtroom whoops up respect for the troops. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is liberal revisionism. Liberals desperately want to be thought of as the heroes of social justice. But history remembers the creative energy of radical protest, not the measured position papers deploring excessive force in the battle against communism. The liberal imagination cannot bear this, so Aaron Sorkin ridicules protest, maligns dissidents, valorizes cowardice, gives evil a fig leaf, and reduces a heroic spectacle to cheap drama.