The conspiracy trial that followed the violence in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 has shown up in many forms: stage, television, books, movies, folk-rock song lyrics. Aaron Sorkin, creator of the television show “The West Wing,” now takes his turn with the Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7. The opening montage shows young men getting their draft notices. It looks, for all the world, like those who protested the Vietnam War were trying to save their own necks. The rest of the film is dedicated to chipping away at that impression.
Our introduction to the Youth International Party’s "Yippies" is Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) standing at the front of the classroom, bomb in hand, explaining who Vyacheslav Molotov was. His recruits sit at their desks, obedient students. The background music is cheery. The scene has a satirical air. We won’t see him or his people throwing bombs—or, for that matter, the turmoil of the Days of Rage visited on Chicago by the Weathermen during the five-month trial.
Sorkin, in interviews, has disclaimed hewing closely to history: He has created a “painting, not a photograph” of the legendary events and it should be judged accordingly. Even so, we need an idea of how things really were—especially since the real events were zany enough to test our credulity.
On the first day of the trial in September 1969, the celebrity photographer Richard Avedon snapped a group photo of the defendants. Defense witnesses at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois included Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, the comedian Dick Gregory, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and several folksingers. Ginsberg, on the witness stand, recited many stanzas of his bodily-function-oriented verse. For her part, Judy Collins, during her testimony, started to sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Judge Julius J. Hoffman told her to stop. Defense attorney William Kunstler argued that she should be allowed to finish. Hoffman said no. The defendants’ mail was delivered to them in the courtroom. It included an envelope full of marijuana from a well-wisher.
The reporter J. Anthony Lukas, in his 1970 book on the trial, wrote that the defendants
put their booted feet up on the black leather chairs, and sometimes even on the table. The radicals wore blue jeans and sweatshirts which sometimes rode above the waist to expose a hairy belly or scrawny back. . . . As the proceedings droned on, they read newspapers, books, memos and mail; wrote speeches and press releases; munched jelly beans; whispered; made faces; snickered or dozed.
Lukas’ account of the sentencing appeared in the New York Times on February 15, 1970. He quotes David Dellinger, a Christian pacifist and the oldest of the defendants, addressing Judge Hoffman: “You want us to be like good Jews, going quietly to concentration camps while the court suppresses the truth. It’s a travesty on justice. The record condemns you, not us.” Lukas continues:
Federal marshals pushed him twice into his black leather chair. Mr. Dellinger protested: ‘I’m just a feeble old man but I represent the spirit of speaking out.’ At this, Mr. Dellinger’s two daughters—Natasha, 22, and Michelle, 13—and several other girls in the front row of the press section began shouting, ‘Right on!’ As several marshals advanced to grab Natasha, she kicked one of them in the abdomen. This set off a free‐for‐all that involved about 20 marshals, defendants, defense aides and spectators who wrestled, pushed and exchanged punches around the defense table. At one point, Kunstler rose, threw himself across the marshal’s desk directly in front of the judge, and sobbed, ‘Put me in jail, for God’s sake!’
None of this made it onto Sorkin’s canvas. The Trial of the Chicago 7 opts instead for the courtroom sights and sounds that a non-historically-inclined general audience will find familiar. With the astonishing mess all streamlined, events unfold in a clear and sequential way in a standing-room only courtroom that is nevertheless hushed and orderly. It’s television-like, as are the flashbacks to demonstrations in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Grant Park, where choreographed women toss their bras into a flaming barrel and men toss their draft cards into another flaming barrel. The hippies’ music is polished, in keeping with the televisual perfection—though it was pleasingly original to hear the band in the park playing not the expected sixties rock but a pop song, “Just One Look.”
The film strays outside the legal proceedings to follow the defendants around in their spare time and, through flashbacks, to show them trying to lead the antiwar crowds nearer to the heavily guarded convention center where Hubert Humphrey is being nominated for president. This storytelling method leaves room for the creation of relationships between the characters, to the point where The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more buddy picture than courtroom drama. Or, more precisely, a buddies picture, since several guy pairings populate the screen.
There are the leaders of the Youth International Party, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin; the Students for a Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); and the two least prominent defendants, John Froines and Lee Weiner (no relation), who exchange Tom Stoppardesque one-liners at the margins of the spectacle. There’s also the “frenemy” relationship that forms the movie’s through-line: can the free-wheeling druggie Hoffman prove to the clean-cut Hayden that Hoffman’s antics are more than just showy self-indulgence? In turn, can Hayden prove to Hoffman that he’s no trimmer mouthing revolutionary slogans while looking to cut a deal with The Man?
Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader who was originally the eighth defendant in the case, is also given a buddy. We first meet Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in a distinctly “West Wing” way. We follow him striding through the Black Panther Party’s Oakland, California, headquarters, which is buzzing with activity not unlike a campaign office, except that some functionaries are answering telephones and others are polishing guns. The tracking shot gives us the feeling of tagging along on a heady ride as a busy and in-demand person confers on the fly with his diligent female aide about an important decision: whether he should go to Chicago for the antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention. The repartee is witty and perky, her skepticism overcome by his dutiful resolve, sort of like Martin Sheen overruling Allison Janney to pursue some risky gambit to get a treaty through the Senate. “Fred Hampton wants me there,” Seale tells the aide, with that biopic stiffness that preps us for the other historical figures waiting in the wings.
Hampton (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.)—who, unlike his film counterpart, didn’t act as Seale’s de facto legal advisor—led the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter. His death at the hands of police in December 1969 is shown out of sequence in the movie to conjure up a Seale-Hampton friendship. Seale, grieving Hampton’s murder, becomes so vehement in defense of his constitutional rights that the judge orders him bound and gagged. (In fact, by the time the police killed Hampton in a raid on his apartment, Seale was no longer being tried in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom. His case had been severed the previous month.) Almost immediately after viewers are hit with the shocking image of a black man carried into an American courtroom gagged and chained to a chair, he is gone from the movie. In fact, Seale won a battle of wills with the judge: he spent three days in restraints but was readmitted to the courtroom without them. The film’s abbreviated view of him makes him seem less important than he really was.
Several plot twists rely on the protectiveness that Hayden feels for Davis. A gentle and earnest brainiac, Davis carefully records the names of U.S. servicemen who are dying in combat overseas day by day, which later becomes the basis of the mournfully patriotic peroration invented for Hayden as a wind-up to the trial (and the movie). Davis may be the conscience of the defense side, but he’s also an all-American boy who needs to see his girlfriend. And make a good impression on her parents. So Hayden springs into action, taking time out—with the demonstrators milling around a public park and the police ordering them to disperse—to let the air out of the tires of the car of Davis’s police tail. Davis can now arrive at his girlfriend’s house without law enforcement in tow.
Why such lavish shark-jumping? Well, it fits the straight-arrow, friend-attached character type that Hayden is supposed to embody. When the real Hayden got arrested in Lincoln Park for deflating a police car’s tires, he was trying to hurt his adversary, not help his buddy.
The same thing happens with an incendiary speech that Hayden gives to the peace marchers. Why does his accustomed self-control desert him? Because he has just seen Davis struck to the ground by a baton-wielding cop. On top of that, we learn from a police audiotape that what sounded like a battle cry really wasn’t one, for a tic in Hayden’s speech patterns led to his being misconstrued. As with Bobby Seale, when Tom Hayden grows shrill, he isn’t being political; he is a human being trying to cope.
The person who catches the discrepancy is Abbie Hoffman. The defense team listens to the seemingly incriminating audiotape; then Abbie displays his speech-therapist chops. The forty-nine-year-old Baron Cohen looks too old to play Hoffman and struggles to approximate Hoffman’s Boston accent. But he gives a charismatic performance, schooling the defense lawyers on innovative ways to gain legal advantage by winning over public opinion. The lawyers disapprove of their client’s habit of holding press conferences and spending his weekends performing stand-up on campuses, but Hoffman shows that his unorthodox approach works. And, in what is supposed to be an especially poignant scene, Kunstler (Mark Rylance), watching one of the press conferences on television, sees Hoffman laying aside his Marx Brothers-style irreverence to say that he would sacrifice his life for the revolution.
To be sure, it wouldn’t be easy fifty years after the event to recapture the novelty of a kind of rebellion—a mixture of Dionysian excess and moral self-righteousness—that is no longer new to us. Sorkin has citizens crowding the steps of the courthouse holding up opposing political signs. It’s a mere gesture at the social tensions of that era, the racial tensions, the shaking of the confidence of working-class Democrats in Chicago and their leader, Mayor Daley, as Daley’s draconian security measures degenerated into police clubbings of unarmed demonstrators by the hundreds. (The real Davis did get cracked over the head by a real policeman.) If the moviemaking can’t be ragged or spontaneous, raggedness and spontaneity should at least be faked; here the effort is hardly made. Cops and hippies confront each other like toy regiments on a game board. The principal characters are arrayed like Star Trek crew members exploring a colorful and mildly scary urban planet together.
The good guys contend with not just the police but a pair of counter-demonstrators who roam the peace marches. When these blazer-clad frat boys menace a female protestor for wrapping herself in the American flag—and are about to rape her—Rubin, the Molotov cocktail instructor, gallantly intervenes. He’s the one who gets arrested, though. It’s patented Sorkin, finding comedy gold in leveraging the forces of reaction to set off the heroes in virtuous contrast.
We might understand why these relatable versions of the New Left would reject risking their lives for a war they don’t support. Not as relatable would be if they rooted for the other side to win. That Sorkin knows this, we can infer from the scene where the riled-up crowd of protesters tries to “take the hill.” When some of them climb onto the General Logan monument, they don’t—as they did in real life—festoon it with a Viet Cong flag. Abbie Hoffman wears an American flag shirt in the movie, but there’s no courtroom skirmish with a marshal over a Viet Cong flag that the real Hoffman brought in with him.
As for the forces of reaction, they, too, are Sorkinized from the get-go. In the movie, it isn’t a vengeful Mayor Daley who has dragged this group into court, but a stock villain of the type familiar to “West Wing” fans—located not in flyover country but in Washington, center of all certifiably important things. The soon-to-be-embroiled-in-Watergate Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) is our instigator. Mitchell is steamed at the previous Attorney General, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), for failing to prosecute draft-dodgers and also for being rude during the change of administrations.
In fact, the real Mayor Daley, angered by an official report that found the City of Chicago mostly responsible for the convention violence, prevailed upon a federal judge to convene the grand jury that indicted the original Chicago 8. According to Lukas, the real Attorney General Mitchell, “seeing that his interests neatly coincided with Mr. Daley’s,” gave the green light to prosecute. But the movie version offers us the thrill of the chase, as it dawns on the defendants that they need Clark to testify. The lawyer-client brainstorming session goes like this (it’s not epistemologically pretty):
DAVIS: You know what would be ironic? . . . If John Mitchell did all this just to get back at Ramsey Clark.
HAYDEN: For what?
DAVIS: That thing, remember? Outgoing cabinet members are supposed to resign, but Ramsey Clark didn’t tender his resignation until—
RUBIN: I read Mitchell had a fit about that.
RUBIN: Did you read about that, Lenny? Bill?
KUNSTLER (musingly): He was never even on our witness list.
Apparently, the task of overturning the power structure leaves these radicals plenty of time to stay au courant with Beltway spats over presidential transitions. Anyway, “Eureka!” glances are exchanged. It’s a breakthrough moment for Kunstler. The courtroom sobber of historical record has been depicted here as the shrewd yet humble country lawyer type devoted to the norms of Anglo-Saxon law. Now he adopts Hoffman’s no-holds-barred attitude toward defending the case, and off he goes to seek an audience with the former attorney general. Clark must be enlisted before the thugs working for Mitchell get to him and shut him up.
But just as a wryly funny and courageous Clark takes the stand and begins his testimony, Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) decides the jury will not be allowed to hear it. The real Judge Hoffman did block Clark’s testimony; per Lukas, the real defense team didn’t think it added much anyway. The real Judge Hoffman, who had about as much control over the trial as the proverbial substitute teacher, did favor the prosecution in his rulings, even replacing a member of the jury who seemed sympathetic to the defense. Langella is wonderfully haughty and incompetent in this role, so bent on helping to convict these men that it embarrasses the main federal prosecutor, Dick Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The other federal prosecutor, Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie), a cheater in cahoots with the Justice Department, can’t believe it when Schultz rises at the end to participate in Hayden’s tribute to the troops. It’s a reiteration of the defendants’ respect, shown throughout the picture, for the American war dead.
This is perhaps the biggest stretch in a movie full of stretches, and the one most dependent on the audience’s not knowing much history. At the trial’s end, Abbie Hoffman, Mr. Street Smart, puts in a plug for conventional electoral politics. Hayden passes up a chance to ingratiate himself with the judge to get a shorter sentence, laying to rest any notion that he’s a careerist. Kunstler has learned from his young clients to cast aside judicial propriety and give vent to his passionate desire to overcome injustice.
As left-coalition politics in cinematic form, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is highly sophisticated. It obscures the extent to which the anti-radicals (the mayor, the prosecutors) were members of the Democratic Party, and files the edges off the radicals’ disdain for mainstream America. How hackneyed as entertainment—and yet how apt for the real United States of America, where old Joe Biden and young woke activists will, in the fondest hopes of the Sorkins of the world, come toward each other, link arms, and bring a brand-new day.
Lauren Weiner, a native Chicagoan, is a writer in Baltimore.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe