Synopsis: Seven men are on trial, accused of conspiracy and inciting rioting outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Aaron Sorkin takes on the 1960’s in The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Specifically, he gives us a political history lesson based on the unrest at the August, 1968 Democratic Convention and the subsequent trial of eight defendants– all men– charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot. The players hew to Sorkin’s specialty: the male-driven narrative. Kudos for casting Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.
As an aficionadx of interviews with hippies and rock concert footage from the 1960’s (Woodstock being the apex), I was hoping that the whole movie wouldn’t be set in the courtroom, but would re-stage events in Chicago’s Lincoln and Grant Parks where musicians played for the protesters. Thankfully, we are not stuck in a courtroom all day, but venture out to see how it all happened outside the convention. A little background…
Activist groups had been denied all but one permit to gather against the Vietnam War by Mayor Daley’s officials. Daley wanted to show off his control over the city and was determined that dirty hippies be kept out of Chicago where the Democratic Convention was being held that August. Roughly 10,000 demonstrators converged and were met with more than 20,000 police officers and National Guardsmen primed to billy club the unarmed citizens.
The men who were later arrested and indicted were all leaders of organizations that protested the Vietnam War and police violence. The defendants were: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis (Students for a More Democratic Society), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Youth International Party, aka, Yippies), and David Dellinger of the cumbersomely named National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam/MOBE. John Froines and Lee Weiner were also defendants, but the case against them was flimsy –so for the purposes of the movie they are minor characters who toss off a few anti-establishment quips and that’s it. Okay, that’s seven men, but the 1969 trial initially included Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. Seale, who maintained that he had hardly spent any time in Chicago, had no lawyer present. After repeatedly angering the judge, who actually had him manacled and shackled for verbal outbursts, Seale’s case was separated out. I guess the judge had a thing for running his courtroom like it was 1870.
If rhetoric could win the day then Sorkin would get these guys off. But he has to conclude with what actually happened. No matter, he has lots of speechifying and snappy dialog on display. Sacha Baron Cohen as the outrageously profane Abbie Hoffman is pitch perfect. He gets to insult everyone and disrupt the proceedings, as IRL. In fact, Hoffman and Rubin were a veritable political comedy act; telling the judge his courtroom was bullshit and wearing judges’ robes themselves. They also napped, snacked on jelly beans and read the paper during their trial. At one point, Hoffman blew kisses to the jury, prompting the judge to instruct the jury to “disregard” the kisses.
Eddie Redmayne plays the activist who’s destined to rise in politics, Tom Hayden (the future California assemblyman and husband & ex-husband of actor-activist Jane Fonda). Eddie looks nothing like Hayden, but does convey his dedication and ambition, while nailing an American accent. Mark Rylance ( a US & UK theater giant) is the defendants’ lawyer William Kunstler whom he plays with aplomb and a long, shabby combover. Naturally, the Fed’s counsel has a trim establishment haircut. Playing against type is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as US prosecutor, Richard Schultz. Thank you for taking one for the team, JGL. We know you are a hippie at heart. Bobby Seale is played with barely contained righteous fire by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Finally, leading this sham trial is Frank Langella as Judge Louis Hoffman. He’s comical and sinister, just like when he played another hippie hater, Pres. Richard Nixon (Frost/Nixon). They all do very well with the reams of Sorkin-speak.
As I hoped, the film does show us all of the people demonstrating and organizing protests in Chicago’s parks and streets. They, and all the extras, wear groovy clothes a plenty (especially Rubin & Hoffman in headbands and fringed jackets) and brandish antiwar signs. The thing is, they weren’t doing anything wrong. They were exercising their First Amendment right to Free Speech and Assembly. Something that authoritarian Mayor Daley was intent on shutting down. Later investigations would find the police were the ones who were rioting. Journalists and city residents received equal opportunity beatings alongside their fellow unarmed citizens.
Government officials calling for protestors to be teargassed and hauled in by the police? Trumped up charges against political opponents? A commentary on 2020? You know it. Just add masks.
Sadly, Sorkin doesn’t have time for others’ words in Chicago 7. Too bad because the witnesses for the prosecution added to the circus-like atmosphere; poet Allen Ginsberg chanted ‘Ommm’ while judge and attorney discoursed, folk singer Judy Collins began singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” But the judge put a stop to that; whereupon Ms. Collins asked if she could at least recite the lyrics.
The best thing about the movie turns out to be the spotlight it shines on history repeating itself. In this case, the twinning of 1968 and 2020. In 1968: Humphrey won the Democratic party’s nomination, but lost to Nixon in the general election. In 2020: Democrat Joe Biden v Trump. As 1968’s protesters chanted in Chicago: THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING.
P.S. Music turned out to be in short supply during convention week. However, folk group Peter, Paul and Mary (absent Paul) did perform some of their gentle tunes at Grant Park while police periodically teargassed the concert goers. Rockers MC5 managed to play for a crowd of a few thousand before riots that night. The busiest musician seemed to be protest singer Phil Ochs who zipped around to the parks singing his self-penned tunes, including “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “The War is Over.” Click here to see remarkable on-the-ground footage.
P.P.S. Women were actively involved in efforts to end the war in Vietnam. However, they were sidelined from leadership roles. Tired of being marginalized, many women stepped up their efforts to be heard, resulting in the second wave of the U.S. feminist movement. The first wave had focused on securing women’s right to vote, while the Women’s Liberation movement taking root in the 1960’s labored for legal and social equality.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: A worthwhile –and entertaining– examination of a dramatic time in recent American history.
Humor Highlight: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.