Mockery of a sham: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2020)

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Don’t say I didn’t warn you. From my 2008 review of The Trial of the Chicago 10:

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

Flash-forward 12 years. I’d venture to say that the “historical parallels” between the Nixon and Trump administrations are even more pronounced in 2020 than between the Nixon and Bush Jr. administrations in 2008, not to mention the “overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country” (which is widely considered to be at an all-time low). And I still say “…the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.”

Spielberg saw something shinier, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has emerged from the other side of Development Hell largely unscathed, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin now in the director’s chair and Sacha Baron Cohen sporting Abbie Hoffman hair (funnily enough, Cohen has also unleashed his new Borat film-in time for the upcoming election).

For you young’uns, here is the back story: In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

No, your calculations are correct…there were originally “8” defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out of the proceedings altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served a 4 year sentence for contempt. The remaining seven defendants’ outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never served any time).

The trial dragged on for months, resulting in each of the seven being acquitted of conspiracy. Two defendants were acquitted completely; and the remaining five were convicted of “crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot”. However, all the convictions were reversed by a U.S. appeals court in 1972 (the Justice Department wisely decided to let it go at that point). None of the seven served time for the contempt charges.

Contextually, there was a lot going on with that trial; from a dramatist’s point of view there are any number of angles to riff on. On the most superficial level, there is the political theater aspect of the proceeding…an opportunity that wasn’t lost on a couple of the more flamboyant defendants (i.e., self-proclaimed “Yippees” Hoffman and Rubin) who took the ball and ran with it (much to the chagrin of exasperated Judge Hoffman, who was dispensing “contempt of court” charges like Halloween candy by the trial’s end).

But there was also something broader in scope and more insidious at play here; namely, the “war” that President Richard M. Nixon had all but declared on America’s counterculture, which he perceived to be his greatest nemesis (his “enemies list” is legend). More specifically, Nixon was wielding the Justice Department as a truncheon to beat down and suppress the antiwar movement (or “radical Left protesters”…if you will).

If certain elements sound depressingly similar to 2020, that is an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Aaron Sorkin. I am aware of detractors who feel Sorkin wields his prose like a truncheon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Negative reviews I’ve read tend to whinge on about how he belabors those historical parallels…but that is precisely what I like about it.

A great cast helps. As I noted earlier, Cohen is an inspired choice to play Abbie Hoffman. In the guise of his alter-egos Ali ‘G’ and Borat, Cohen has used elements of political guerilla theater rooted in the ethos of 1960s activist street performers like The Diggers and the San Francisco Mime troupe. Likewise, Hoffman himself frequently staged rallies using guerilla theater techniques, most notably in 1967 when he and fellow activist Allen Ginsberg joined thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

Jeremy Strong (so good as the coke-addled heir in HBO’s Succession) is excellent as Hoffman’s main partner-in-disruption Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella makes a convincingly cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Federal prosecutor Dick Schultz (who has taken issue with the film’s portrayal of himself and elements of the trial) and Michael Keaton plays it straight in his cameo as Ramsay Clark. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (featured in HBO’s Watchmen) is a standout as Bobby Seale.

In addition to Cohen, the impressive UK contingent of the cast includes Mark Rylance as defense attorney Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as activist Tom Hayden. Interestingly, Sorkin focuses on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. In my 2009 review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, I observed:

It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.

This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.

By playing up the Hoffman vs. Hayden “more radical than thou” stalemate, Sorkin is doing something similar here—pointing out how messy “revolutions” can get; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of backgrounds and approaches taken by each the (originally) eight defendants.

While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a group of “conspirators” by their government. Dystopian nightmare fuel…but the good news is our justice system worked, and the convictions were reversed.

Then again, as many have said—American Democracy (borne of revolution, mind you) is “messy”. So far, our checks and balances have kept it from collapsing. But we have come “this close” many times. At least twice in my lifetime…during the aforementioned Nixon administration (which ended in his resignation as a result of the Watergate debacle) and right here and now. But there is a time-proven way to keep it shored up:

Get out the vote.

 

(“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is currently playing on Netflix)

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