Go Online to See The Trial of Chicago 7



Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Netflix, 130 minutes, R (language, drugs, bloodshed)





Like it or not–and I don’t–movies have been decoupled from cinemas. A while back, a friend told me I should see The Trial of the Chicago 7. I paid little heed because it was only available on Netflix Streaming, a platform I didn’t then have. He was right.  


If you doubt what I said about the declining importance of cinemas, consider that the above film made a measly $115,000 at the box office. Given that it cost $35 million to make, Chicago 7 is the biggest bombs in movie history, right? Wrong! It’s near the top of most-watched movies on Netflix. My friend also told me that Sacha Baron Cohen was superb in the film. I couldn’t imagine that, but he was right about that as well.


Chicago 7 is neither a documentary nor a faithful depiction of the days of Rage outside the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August 1968 or the five-month trial of dissidents that took place between September 1969 and February 1970. Anyone wishing to poke holes can do so. The opening montage shows events disconnected in time, the undercover agent tempting Jerry Rubin is fictional, women did not burn bras, the gentle giant Dave Dellinger never slugged anyone, defense attorney William Kunstler was more strident than depicted, Fred Hampton was murdered a month after Bobby Seale’s mistrial, and it was Dellinger, not Tom Hayden, who tried to read the names of Americans who died in Vietnam War during the trial.


The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a “dramatization.” Surprisingly, by taking a few liberties, it communicates a kind of truth better than had it not. It encapsulates the good and bad about this period of American history. On the plus side, it’s a reminder of the youthful energy and idealism of the counterculture, not to mention its courage in confronting injustice, State-sanctioned violence, and the inherent stupidity of the Vietnam War. Yet it also shows the soil being tilled for a brand of American fascism embodied by Nixon and his thugs that ultimately yielded the reactionary social views of Ronald Reagan and the thuggery of Donald Trump and his deplorables who would tear down America rather than embrace multiculturalism.


The story arc stays close to reality. Bands of antiwar protestors descended on Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley, the spiritual father of Trump, ordered his minions to deny rally and camping permits. He also unleashed the Chicago Police–who earned their reputation for being Cossacks–to break heads. That, by the way, was the judgment of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), not some Yippie. Chicago was a bloodbath that didn’t need to happen, but someone had to be blamed. Eight “co-conspirators” went on trial: pacifist Dave Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); SDS leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne); peace activists Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Lee Weiner, and John Froines; Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II); and Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Seale’s case was decoupled when his angry outbursts led Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) to order him bound and gagged.


It was a put-up job, as Kunstler (Mark Rylance) continually pointed out as he racked up many of the 175 contempt citations Judge Hoffman handed down. There was no conspiracy. Several of the defendants didn’t even know the others; others passionately disliked each other. The film does a good job of showing divisions within the New Left, especially those between politicos and self-styled revolutionaries. Judge Hoffman was a disgrace who was quietly put out to pasture after the trial; all of the convictions were eventually tossed. If the goal was to preserve the Establishment, the Chicago 7/8 case did more to undermine it than the Yippies could have ever done.


I again remind you that this film is not a faithful account. Defendants Hoffman, Rubin, and Seale were indeed disruptive, Judge Hoffman was worse than we see, assistant prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wasn’t as innocent as shown, etc. Nonetheless, the film’s sprawling cast was really topnotch. Sacha Baron Cohen was really good as Abbie Hoffman, a complicated mix of the clowning, defiance, and bursts of intelligence and depression. If I tell you that what actually happened was far worse than what is shown in the movie, you can imagine you witnessed Act One of America coming apart at the seams. You wouldn’t be wrong.


Rob Weir


PS: Can we please stop already with anachronistic outro music. The stuff from Celine is utter rubbish!

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