By Steve Provizer
In the end, The Trial of the Chicago 7 strikes a reasonable balance between historical document and cinematic art.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, directed by Aaron Sorkin. Streaming on Netflix.
I’ve recently pondered whether America in 2020 is more polarized than it was in 1969. I’m viscerally repulsed by our leadership. In order to retain a vestige of sanity I must repress the possibility that Trump might be reelected. Something close to half the American people will vote for him and some hideous number believe in the precepts of QAnon. In the ’60s I was around and politically active. To some extent, my memories of the villains of the Nixon era have softened over time; I recalled them as being almost Keystone Kops compared to the present band of depraved thugs. The ravages of Trump will endure, more tragically and profoundly, but the contrast in toxicity I perceived between the two eras needed to be adjusted after I recently viewed the film The Trial of the Chicago 7. Some dark memories were reawakened.
The opening of the film is a fast encapsulation of events leading up to the trial. A telling rationale was left out: our government tried to justify the madness in Southeast Asia with a grotesquerie called The Domino Theory. Reasonably enough, the intro outlined the lottery for the military draft. My own draft lottery number (129) was low enough to potentially consign me to the Agent Orange-infused jungles of Vietnam. How I avoided that fate is a long story. Suffice it to say that I was seriously invested in political activity and spent a lot of time at demonstrations-in DC, Boston, and New Haven.
Although more footage from the era would have been welcome, the Netflix film captures the atmosphere of the police riot that ensued in Chicago and the proceedings of the trial (with historical distortions noted below). The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes the fatuity of indicting the famed activists abundantly clear. Attorney General John Mitchell’s decision to proceed dramatized the sclerotic and splenetic state of American leadership. The trial was, in fact, a visual crystallization of the country’s deeply polarized state.
Like many young people at the time, I thought the system was screwed up, but not completely broken. After all, even Nixon was forced to run on a pledge to end the war, although he used the snake oil–soaked phrase “Peace with honor.” When the Chicago 7 trial was first announced, the expectation was that it would be medicinal: our judicial system could be a forum wherein American divisiveness might play out peacefully, the clash put into an incisive perspective. What transpired in that Chicago courtroom gave the lie to that notion.
It’s easy to single out Judge Julius Hoffman as a renegade judge, which he was, but his erratic behavior was already known to the Chicago Bar before this trial. Still, he was tapped to preside at this highest of high-profile cases. Something else no one seems to have noticed is that he was permitted to continue to try cases until he was 87 years old. What does it say that someone like Julius Hoffman can fester, geriatrically, in our judicial system?
The film’s depiction of Bobby Seale’s part in the process is accurate, except that the large representation of Black Panthers in the court did not happen. Fred Hampton did not have conversations with Seale that led to contempt charges. The gagging and shackling of Seale is an almost inconceivable act — but it did happen (as did the FBI’s assassination of Hampton and the probable forging of letters to make it seem that the Black Panthers were trying to intimidate jurors unfavorable to the government’s case). In thinking back on the media coverage of the trial, it should be noted that visual representations of what happened in that courtroom at the time were limited to sketches by artists in charcoal or pastel. There was no video and no photographic documentation. This no doubt reduced the public impact of what happened and, of course, there are still no cameras in Federal courts unless specifically allowed by the judge.
I had forgotten how long the trial was, and this presented the most serious structural challenge to the filmmakers. They do a decent job of compressing time. However, there were some serious divergences from historical reality, including:
- No one working for the government who tried to infiltrate the leadership of the demonstration testified in court. There was no romance between a government agent and Jerry Rubin.
- Peace activist Dave Dellinger did not lose it and punch a court officer.
- A long parade of musicians, writers, and artists testified. None of that is shown here.
- The film tries to build to a climax by using a tape recording in which Tom Hayden says “If blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city.” In truth, there’s no evidence that such a tape existed, or that Hayden said those words.
- One of the main subplots here posits an antagonism between Hayden and Hoffman. In fact, while their styles were very different, there’s no evidence of this.
- Ramsey Clark’s testimony came nowhere near being the “smoking gun” the film makes it out to be.
The tearjerker ending gives us Hayden reading the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Almost the entire courtroom rises while Hoffman bangs his gavel, unable to control the proceedings. In fact, Dellinger at some point earlier in the trial had begun to read those names — while the judge was out of the courtroom. As soon as Hoffman came back in he put a stop to it, charging Dellinger with contempt of court. This “inspiring” ending is blatantly ludicrous — the worst part of The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The actors bore a fair resemblance to their characters and performed well, although Sasha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman was marginal. His Borat accent is perfect, but he did not master the more arcane accent found in Worcester, MA, Hoffman’s hometown. It may be time to stop hiring Brits to play Massachusetts townies.
I’m of two minds about the distortions concocted by the filmmakers to sweeten the dramatic pot. The trial was an important part of the fabric of my own tangled story. Naturally, I would like that history to be told accurately. On the other hand, I want the emotional weight of that turbulent era to be conveyed to young people today, so they will recognize just how much was at stake. In the end, The Trial of the Chicago 7 strikes a reasonable balance between historical document and cinematic art.
So, which era is more corrupt and polarized? Although the film narrowed my perception of the gap, I still believe 2020 is the winner in this wretched contest. Perhaps it’s my judgment on the character of the leadership in each era. Perhaps it’s the grinding repetition of systemic rot, racism, and inequality over time. In any case, I believe the reelection of Trump will lead to even more dire consequences than what happened after the 1968 election, which led to the crisis of Watergate. Talk about a low bar.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.