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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Trial of the Chicago 7

Nice building you've got there. It'd be a shame if some
democracy happened to it.

dir: Aaron Sorkin


Aaron Sorkin is known for a lot of things. The West Wing, very talky films, two people walking hurriedly down a hallway having an animated discussion, being pretty sexist, having a blazing cocaine addiction in his prime, but what he’s most famous for is another courtroom drama from a long time ago that many people above a certain age know of whether they’ve seen the film or not: A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise (boo) and Jack Nicholson (yay).

It’s the pinnacle, the apotheosis of court room dramas. It takes what is generally, if you’ve been part of any trials, dry, procedural formal processes and transforms them into gladiatorial combat between egotistical jerks. Grand speeches decide people’s fates, not evidence, nor the law itself. People yell about wanting to know the truth, and others deride the ability of the person saying such a thing, asserting that they couldn’t possibly handle the truth, no truth handler, you.

But that was fiction. High drama. A movie, directed by Rob Reiner, based on a play, written by Aaron Sorkin.

You would think Aaron Sorkin is coming full circle tackling a movie about a trial, but this time as writer and director, and he probably did some other stuff on the film as well, maybe a bit of the sewing on some of the hippy clothing, maybe a sandwich or two. The trial of the so-called Chicago 7, despite there being 8 defendants, is something that actually happened, that there’s a lot of evidence for. I don’t even have to look up any articles to know where the script deviates from reality in a lot of instances, because if there’s one thing Sorkin prizes over accuracy, it’s a good line.

The remarkable thing about what he needs to depict here, though, is not some battle between defense attorneys and prosecutors, or wily defendants blustering their way through a court room convinced of their own invulnerability: All he has to show is how farcical the trial actually was, in order to prove his point. And his point is: whether you can handle the truth or not, what American governments, both Federal and State, in this case the state of Illinois, and the powers of local government as exercised through the police did to these people was fucking awful and profoundly undemocratic.

And this is not a point you’re going to see in many places: the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, who urged the cops to not be gentle with these protestors, the legislators and party apparatchiks who wanted these protestors wiped out, and the Black Panthers eradicated by murderous force if necessary, were all Democrats.

But…but I thought the Democrats were the “good” guys in American history?

Turns out, spoiler alert, Democrat politicians and administrations have been just as fucked at this democracy stuff as the dreaded Republicans.

People forget the American contribution to the Viet Nam War of Independence from the colonial control of France started with JFK and continued under LBJ, both of whom, last I checked, were Democrats. Nixon came in, in 1968, but plenty of people had already been fucked up by then. Bunches, disconnected bunches of activists, mostly young, mostly hopeful beyond hope, thought that a good way to stop the war, or at least the drafting of young Americans to die and kill overseas, would have been to disrupt the Democratic Convention in Chicago prior to the election that saw Nixon come to power in all his divine, malevolent majesty.

So the cops popped a lot of skulls at that convention, and in the parks, and in the streets, and wanted to fuck up this activist movement once and for all. Convince young American peoples, regardless of the colour of their skin or the content of their characters (but especially African-Americans) not to protest the war, not to protest the government, not to protest police murders of activists, and to do this they grabbed a bunch of people, grouped them together, and tried to make painful examples of them to dissuade everyone else.

I mean, it’s so fucking nakedly corrupt. It’s shameful. Sham trials like this still go on these days, but it’s usually in countries where they don’t even pretend to do anything other than enforce the will of the Great Leader or one party or a group of generals that hate their own populations. You expect more from the land of the free and the home of the people so brave they need hundreds of guns each and no masks to get by.

It's funny to me that Frank Langella plays the obviously awfully corrupt judge Hoffman in this flick. He has played Nixon before as well, and I wish they’d shown a couple of scenes of Langella as Nixon telling Langella as Judge Hoffman “I really want you to stick it to these punks and hippies and darkies and Jews”. Of course, the whole point of systems and structures like this is that no-one needs to go up to the judge and say “you know what, we really want you to railroad these motherfuckers”. The beauty of such a system is that the system looks after itself, regardless of who’s in power.

Judge Hoffman, who comes across as nakedly prejudiced towards the defendants and defense counsel, doesn’t even get to do anything that would get him fired or even censured for his actions. Everything he does is legally defensible, every overruled motion and brazenly biased ruling is business as usual, and the defendants never stand a chance.

That’s probably the main reason why the flick doesn’t really follow what I would argue is the expected format, which is a bunch of innocent guys with all the powers of the state arrayed against them, who triumph because of The Truth, or because of a convincing and moving speech in summation at the end, or because of the appearance of a shocking, surprise witness. I mean, plenty of that stuff happens anyway, but, again, because the ending is pre-determined, it was never going to matter.

Defending the Chicago 7 (8 including Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)) is a lawyer with a heroic comb-over and an even more heroic name, being William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance). You’d want to be good with a name like that. Ably aiding him in his efforts is another clever lawyer sympathetic to their cause, Leonard Weinglass (the always excellent Ben Shenkman). They are very good at what they do, and I’m pretty sure they’re not getting paid.

Weinglass notices when one of the jurors goes out of her way to show she’s on their side by prominently displaying a copy of a James Baldwin book. When the powers that be figure out that there are jurors on the defendants’ side, or at least not completely against them with malice aforethought, she is one of the juror’s sent a threatening message, with the pretense that it’s the Black Panthers threatening them. We aren’t shown the note, but I imagine it probably had phrases on it saying things like “I assure you madam, this certainly is a note from all of the Black Panthers, grr.” The judge specifically drags her into his chambers, tells her she’s been threatened, and tells her she can’t continue, with the further pretense that it’s her choice.

I mean, it’s not only jury tampering from the prosecutorial side, but also the judge is in on this shit! She apologises to the defense lawyers for abandoning the trial, and Weinglass whispers to her “Keep reading Baldwin…”

I mean, it’s so well-meaning but so cheesy. I loved it. Only because it’s Ben Shenkman delivering it, and he’s so great. Plus James Baldwin was an amazing writer! Makes me want to see the documentary I am Not Your Negro again.

Again, being a trial, you’d think the real conflict is between the defense and the judge, or the defense and the prosecutors. No. Because it’s all rigged, and because the defendants know it, the real conflicts are between the Chicago 7. There are those like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) who think or hope that if they are polite enough to the judge, or speak eloquently enough, or don’t alienate people further, they may be shown some mercy. He’s from SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, or people who think the best way to achieve progressive goals is through political action, getting the right people into the right positions with the best policies.

Then there’s Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who could not be more contemptuous of Hayden’s approach or clean cut demeanor. There are a bunch of other guys, since, hey, there are five (six) others indicted, but really the central conflict is between these two.

Abbie, most famous probably either for this trial or for his book, called Steal This Book, is pretty much synonymous with the Flower Power stuff, despite being older and not specifically a hippie. Although he loved drugs and revolution *sigh*. At one point in the film Hayden laments that years from now people won’t remember anything about what they were trying to do at the Convention, or about how they were trying to stop the war, or his respectful short back and sides haircut, or his ever so polite button down shirts; all they’ll remember is the worst excesses of the hippies and the stunts pulled by narcissistic spotlight hogs just like Abbie Hoffman.

And you know what his response is, nodding his head like he has the benefit of foresight? You’re goddamn right they’re going to remember me. Hayden wants to be handed the keys to the car; Hoffman wants to set fire to the freeway.

The anger between them chugs along for most of the flick, and in a different version of this story, they would probably punch on, then get a new respect for each other, and probably drink together / shag. This version of the story, thankfully, relies more on an intellectual solution, one that only comes once both show how much respect they have for each other, and for the different ways they try to achieve the same thing: end the war, destroy the establishment, steal their women, redistribute all wealth etc.

Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), also somewhat famous beyond the confines of this movie for theatrical stunts and general jolly japery, is pretty much comic relief here. The funniest moments for me involve his relationship with an undercover FBI agent that lasts for about 4 days, but to him meant “true” love. When he asks a prosecutor if the undercover agent still asks after him I just about wet myself with laughter.

Yes, it’s all farcical, but a lot of the details of what transpired, the way the cops maliciously organised events and paths of egress in order to force the protestors into impossible situations that could only end in violence (and by violence we mean armed cops beating unarmed protestors), are pretty shocking. The treatment of Bobby Seale, in a court room, in 1968, is still shocking. And the reasons for his outbursts, being the murder of Fred Hampton, who appears in the court room when the case first starts, go on to show how much implacable power was arranged against these people who had the temerity to defy their masters.

There’s also the incredibly strong point made by Seale to Tom Hayden that, for many of these (white) protestors, they’re doing this because they’re angry at their parents, they’re ashamed of their comforts and privileges, and sometimes the progress they seek is more pretense than actual beliefs. Seale and the Black Panthers, and black activists, are fighting and protesting because the police are murdering them outright, hence the gutting reference to “the noose on the tree” being something of a different symbol to them.

Hayden looks suitably ashamed at that point, and so he should.

This is a Sorkin joint, so, yeah, while I easily and willingly get sucked in, it’s easy to forget that what we’re watching is a depiction of events from the perspective of a guy who, if this were made twenty years ago, would have been called Oliver Stone, and would have probably included something about JFK being shot by aliens. But so much of this is on the public record, and the way it’s all depicted here, dramatically, persuasively, but also hard to believe, is pretty stunning.

The performances are pretty great. The whole story as depicted is fascinating, at least to me. The incredible injustices visited upon these people and the people around them doesn’t ultimately obscure something that I only realised after watching it: at least three of the people out of the eight were probably guilty of what they were accused of. Not the conspiracy charge, which was always bullshit, but the incitement to riot charge, well. Had the court not so horribly abused their rights and resulted in such a sham of a trial, it’s possible that Hayden and Rubin could have been found guilty in a fair trial that wouldn’t have been overturned upon appeal.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s utterly fucked up that they were ever indicted in the first place. It’s a reminder, as if we don’t get daily reminders, that the people that pursue political power or who work for those with political power, are by their natures inhuman, and do shit like this in different guises all the time, even in those places that pride themselves on being democracies.

If they hadn’t been freed, Hayden probably wouldn’t have gone on to marry Jane Fonda, and Rubin wouldn’t have become a rich bastard, and Hoffman, well, he wouldn’t have ever made that much money from a book he told people to steal instead of buy, but he also probably wouldn’t have been whacked in the head with a guitar by Pete Townsend when he stormed the stage at Woodstock. And what a loss to the world that would have been. But at least this flick celebrates how difficult it is to fight the power, and that even when the outcomes seem predetermined, persistence can pay off, because governments can cut their losses and give up out of embarrassment, when the rest of us can’t afford to.

8 times the accents were a bit wonky at times, but at least there wasn’t anyone singing All Along the Watchtower out of 10

(on the phone)
“Tom says to tell Abbie that we’re going to Chicago to end the war and not to fuck around.”
- “Hayden says we’re going to Chicago to end the war and not to fuck around.”
Abbie Hoffman: “Tell Hayden I went to Brandeis, and I can do both.” – you’re a class act, Mr Hoffman - The Trial of the Chicago Seven