Trial of the Chicago 7

(4 Stars) A good telling of an important moment in history that is relevant today.

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Original Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin)

Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen)

Film Editing (Alan Baumgarten)

Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)

Original Song (“Hear My Voice”/Celeste)

1968 was a hell of a year for this country!  In January, North Korea captured a US ship (the Pueblo), and North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive targeting the US and South Vietnam.  Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and two months later, Robert Kennedy was gunned down.  In September Boeing launched the 747 Jumbo Jet which made air travel available to everyone, and in December, Apollo 8 was the first manned space flight to orbit the moon.  US athletes first raised their fists in an expression of BlackPower at the Olympics in October, and a month later Star Trek startled the country with the first televised broadcast of an interracial kiss (Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura – forced to kiss by alien telekinetics). (Thanks to CNN for compiling this list first).  It was a monumental year dominated by violence, race, and, arguably, technological progress.

It was also an election year and President Johnson had rocked the political world on March 31 by announcing that he was not going to seek re-election.  Analysts are still trying to figure out exactly why he made that decision and part of it probably had to do with personal health issues.  But a large part had to do with the country seriously torn by the Vietnam war – a war that he had significantly escalated.

In August of that year, the two parties had their conventions.  The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon in early August.  He had campaigned largely on a promise to restore ‘law and order’ to a nation that had been wracked by racial violence and increasing opposition to the war on the other side of the globe.  He coined the term ‘the silent majority’ to characterize his voters.  After Johnson withdrew from the race, the Democrats were seriously torn between two major factions, the anti-war supporters of Eugene McCarthy and the more traditional supporters of Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey, who picked up the administration’s banner.  The Democratic convention, held later in August, in Chicago, promised to be a strong fight.

And it was, both inside the convention hall and outside.  Inside, the establishment Democrats ended up nominating Humphrey, as expected, over the strenuous objections of anti-war candidates.  Humphrey went on to lose the election to Nixon, in part, because the segregationist George Wallace managed to siphon off several southern states that would normally have gone Democratic.  Wallace had entered the race mostly to oppose Johnson’s Voting Rights Act which had begun to correct the black-white power structure imbalance in those southern states.

So, in 1968, we had a country torn by an extremely unpopular war, racial strife, and political parties that weren’t fully responsive to a major group of dissatisfied voters.  Young people were being drafted to fight, and die in,  a war half-way around the globe that no-one really understood while the country was being torn apart along racial lines.  It isn’t too surprising that the battle spilled outside of the convention halls and onto the streets of Chicago.

And that’s where The Trial of the Chicago 7 begins.  In a very effective montage of scenes we see several unrelated groups of people all preparing to go to Chicago to make their voices heard.  They weren’t delegates in the political process, so they chose the only avenue of opposition available – protesting in the streets.  The first fifteen minutes of this movie are among the best as we see glimpses of each of the major characters develop and the competing and often very different motivations that sent them to Chicago.  Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, believed that the government had abandoned the will of the people and only a political revolution could alter the country’s moral compass.  Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), adopted a more cynical position and felt that only a radical ‘cultural’ revolution could shake the social foundations and steer the country in the correct direction.  Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton, leaders of the Black Panthers didn’t believe that this was really their battleground – they had much bigger grievances – but did agree that Seale should go to Chicago (for four hours) and deliver one speech.  Conscientious objector David Dellinger simply wanted a platform to advocate against violence of any kind.  And so, tens of thousands of mostly young people – those most directly affected by the draft – converged on Chicago to let the power structure know that there were other voices and other opinions on what the Democrats should be doing.

What happened on those streets during the convention is still debated, but generally it is accepted that there was serious police ‘overreaction’ to the protestors – some call it ‘a police riot’.  Blood was spilled on both sides, but protestors took the brunt of it.  After Nixon was elected, and as an expression of his ‘law and order’ campaign slogans, his administration charged 8 individuals who were leaders and participants in the demonstration with various federal crimes including conspiracy.  And that is what the ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ is all about.  (Note: there were originally eight defendants, but the count was reduced to 7 after Bobby Seale’s case was severed.  That issue figured significantly in the real trial and in the movie!)

I was alive and aware in 1968.  I turned 17 late in the year and was enjoying my Sophomore/Junior years of high school.  I had moved to a booming Colorado town from California the year before and was doing extremely well.  I was a leader of my school’s new speech/debate club and brought home the school’s first trophy in extemporaneous speech.  I read all the news magazines and watched TV news religiously (we didn’t have internet back then) – I understood something about current events and was starting to develop a political conscience.  It was an important and fast-moving year, and since my political sensibilities were being formed, I think I have a perspective on the events surrounding this movie that most, younger, critics can’t possibly have.

For one thing, the movie makes a critical error in fact that, even with fictional license, is hard to square away from a personal perspective.  The film suggests that, at the outset, the draft was run by a lottery and that a young man’s fate was determined by the draw of a lottery ball.  In 1968, there was no draft lottery – the old draft system, which relied primarily on taking poorer people, often  Black or other minorities – to fight the wars that richer, whiter men decided were appropriate –  was the way things operated.  This is important, because the lottery, frankly, actually exposed upper middle-class white boys, like myself, to risk that was much less likely under the old system.  The lottery wasn’t implemented until more than a year after the Chicago riots, in December of 1969.

To me, that’s not just important because it’s historically inaccurate.  When I was in the lottery, my birthdate was drawn as number 11 – meaning that I was pretty certain to be drafted and to go to fight (and, obviously, increase my odds of death).  The lottery actually worked in its intended purpose of making the admission to the war machine much more random, and therefore fair.  Once I received that draft number, my parents – especially, my Mother, began all kinds of efforts to get me out of it.  She made my Father, more than a little reluctant, take me to a ‘draft attorney’ – lawyers who specialized in getting young people out of the draft.  I was counseled about filing Conscientious Objector forms, establishing anti-war credentials, and various other legal machinations to avoid the draft.  In the end, I received one of the very last student deferments ever issued – basically a delay to be subject to the draft until after I had finished college.  The war, of course, was over by the time I graduated, so I ended up, luckily, avoiding the draft – and quite possibly being killed.  Others were not nearly so lucky. (Not just in the risk of being killed, but of exposure to horrors that human beings just shouldn’t have to experience.)

The reason this factual error in the movie is important is because the inequality in the implementation of the draft was actually reduced by the lottery.  Before it happened, the deathly burden on lower class Americans, especially those of color, was much more disproportionate than it was after the lottery was implemented.  So, critically, it was the draft lottery that, by increasing the risk exposure to the middle and upper-middle class families actually ended up turning those same families against a war that, until then, didn’t really impact them nearly as much.

This is important because we need to understand that, in 1968, at the time of the Chicago convention, it was easy to view war protestors as something of a sidebar phenomena – a group of left-wing fanatics who didn’t really represent America.  That was my family’s position and, with no small amount of remorse, was also my position – we were part of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ and thought the protestors were anti-American and deserved whatever the cops could unload on them…

As I understand now, we were on the wrong side of history!

Perhaps it takes my own personal history to fault the movie on these facts, but I can’t help but believe that the movie gets the history wrong on a critical point – in 1968 it was easy for Americans to view the Chicago 7 as a fanatic fringe, worthy of prosecution.  It was only after the effects of war conscription, and risk,  were ‘equalized’ across the population that objections to the war really exploded and that was a year or two later.

That makes the events of the Chicago trial more understandable, but it also, in a sense, makes them more tragic – given the perfect vision of hindsight.  It means that we shouldn’t take the movie’s notion that the trial was simply an act of political retribution too seriously – there were real reasons that Nixon’s Justice department, under Mitchell, pursued the case.  Those reasons did not stand the test of time, but they were valid then.  Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed this movie, was still in diapers when the trial occurred – I can’t expect him to approach the topic in quite the same way I do.  Simply put, the conflicts in politics, on the street and in the courtroom were very real back then and not nearly as obviously one-sided as his movie suggests.  That understanding came later.

And the conflicts in this movie are where the real movie gems are to be found.  In particular, the back and forth between Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and – to a lesser extent – David Dellinger are really important.  These four people embody distinct personalities, but also specific intellectual viewpoints.  And, as written by Sorkin (whose script was nominated for an Oscar), their thought processes are complex and rich.  The interplay between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman is more than a personality conflict, but embodies a distinct intellectual argument about how societies change.  Sorkin’s script has been criticized as ‘too polished’ in the way it presents these arguments, suggesting that real life people don’t really think that quickly and express themselves that eloquently, especially when under critical stress.  (While those arguments are probably correct, remember that this is a movie, so some license is allowed.)

I have to admit that I am not normally a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen – I find his kind of humor to be too sophomoric and, usually, just plain gross.  So I was pleasantly surprised by his performance here – he is a perfect actor for the role of a Yippie and exhibits – with Sorkin’s script – an intelligence that I didn’t know he possessed.  The movie might be worth watching for his performance alone.  He deserved the nomination for Supporting Actor, although he might have been considered equally well for Leading Actor.

And, although I’m a fan of Eddie Redmayne, having loved him as Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything and as The Danish Girl, I found his performance here a bit disjointed.  Possibly that is because of film editing errors, or it just might be because Cohen simply upstaged him.

Other supporting actors that did remarkable jobs, although not nominated were Mark Rylance as the patient but witty defense attorney who attempted to control his surly group.  And Frank Langella as the complete buffoon Judge Julius Hoffman who lacked even the basic moral and intellectual credentials to preside over such a trial.

The movie was nominated for film editing and while there was terrific work in the courtroom, I suspect that most of that nomination came from the superbly done introductory montage.  The cinematography nomination was based on the courtroom sequences, bouncing around between close-ups of faces and more panoramic shots of the jury and the defendants.

And then there is that damn song thing.  Once again, a song was nominated that never appears in the movie at all.  It fires up as the ending credits roll.  Sure, the song is catchy and reflects the tone and message of the movie.  I’ve played it over and over as I wrote this review, but I really am tired of nominated songs that are not part of the actual movie, but are tacked on at the end.  Will the Grammys please add a category for ‘movie song’ and then, at the Oscars, we can get at get back to songs that are truly part of the movie message.

So I mentioned many paragraphs ago that, although I was alive and aware when the original trial of the Chicago 7 was in progress, I was, indeed, on the wrong side of history.  The protestors then were right and the war was, indeed wrong, (as even Nixon decided several years later.). Thousands of young men died, needlessly, as it turns out and the system was, indeed, as corrupt as the protestors portrayed it to be.  I have come around to that position, and, perhaps, have even, as a matter of conscience, gone far beyond that.  I now no longer believe that ‘the system’ works for anyone’s benefit except those at the top who will do whatever is necessary to manipulate those of us at the bottom.  Abbie Hoffman was correct then in quoting Abraham Lincoln from a century earlier when Lincoln said “When the people shall grow weary of their constitutional right to amend their government, they shall exert their revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow that government.”

But what is most disturbing about the historical facts, and about this movie, is that it seems so little has changed.  If you go back up and read some of my original descriptions of 1968, are you sure I was talking about a time more than 50 years ago?  How close do those descriptions describe the last year or so with an interminable war in the Mideast, Iraq, and Afghanistan, racial strife blowing up on urban streets all across the country, and two political parties who just can’t quite seem to grasp that the system isn’t working for most of us in this country.  As a liberal it is hard to sympathize with the actions on January 6 of this year, but you can’t help but understand why it happened. The similarities between then and now are really more than coincidence – and the movie is here to remind us of those facts.

This isn’t a perfect movie.  But it is one that everyone should probably see and one that ‘Boomers’ should definitely see.  (4 Stars)

(An edited version of this review was first published in the Sierra County Sun.)

Available to Stream on Netflix

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2 thoughts on “Trial of the Chicago 7”

  1. Good review, and cultural history notes.

    At the time I saw the movie I admired Sorkin’s script and much of the acting, as you pointed out.

    However, I also had disappointment that the movie, like many others, failed to capture the feeling of the sixties as I remember them. As a libertarian, in the classic civil libertarian sense – not the current crypto-reactionary-conservative sense, and a member of the military, who was significantly disciplined for demonstrating against Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls, and then a barefoot long-haired college student I had many significant 60’s experiences and partook liberally of the counter-cultural behaviors open to me. But every movie about that time period seems flat and false footed in some way. Most movies have bits and pieces that feel authentic but the overall feel seems like an airless cartoon to me.


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