Aaron Sorkin's new film tells a familiar story of a divided America that takes on new relevance in October 2020.
At one point in Aaron Sorkin's new film, Trial of the Chicago 7, a crowd of protestors round a street corner and are confronted by row upon row of armed forces.
As they face down the police and the military, and someone with a megaphone begins telling them to stand back, I couldn't help thinking of some of the protests I attended in NYC this summer. The scene sent me straight back to a moment when protestors ran out over the Brooklyn Bridge towards rows of police. It's one of the many moments in the film—which takes place in 1968—that feel eerily reminiscent of 2020.
Though it takes place deep in the crosshairs of the '60s, Aaron Sorkin's Trial of the Chicago 7—which debuted on Netflix this weekend—is clearly meant to remind us of today's political landscape. From its underlying narratives about police brutality to its emphasis on the brokenness of the U.S. government and depiction of a fractured so-called "radical left," the film was clearly saved specifically for this moment.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Official Trailer | Netflix Film www.youtube.com
Trail of the Chicago 7 feels designed for this particular October, where we are caught in between a summer of anti-police brutality protests and a fall that could be filled with political protests, the nature of which depends on who wins at the polls and whether Trump decides to concede, should he lose.
This story has been told before. Trial of the Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin's sardonic take on the infamous 1968 trial, which followed Chicago riots outside the Democratic Convention that August. The protests, namely anti-Vietnam war efforts in response to Lyndon B. Johnson's wartime policies, drew over 15,000 people. They broke curfew; the police charged; blood and tear gas were spilled.
Eight people who attended the riots were later indicted, and their endless trial is the plot of the film. The eight include Yippie organizer Abbie Hoffman, played by a brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen, and an acid-fueled Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong.
Eddie Redmayne is Tom Hayden, the ambitious and poised leader of the Students for Democratic Society who had led occupations at Columbia University earlier that year. Alex Sharp is Rennie Davis, Hayden's friend who was beaten badly by police during the protests and who keeps a running list of Vietnam deaths throughout the trial. Then there's David Dellinger, the pacifist leader of the National Mobilization Committee, a seasoned activist decades older than his compatriots.
And then there's Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther who clearly never should have been on trial at all, as he was only in Chicago for two days, did not have his lawyer present, and wasn't involved in organizing the protests.
The trial was so theatrical and chaotic in real life that even then it practically begged to be dramatized, and it has been many times over the years. From the beginning, it was clear that this was not to be an ordinary event—early on, the insane Judge Julius Hoffman clarified that Abbie Hoffman was not his relative, prompting the latter to cry out, "Dad, dad, have you forsaken me?!" At one point, Hoffman and his co-organizer Jerry Rubin showed up in judge's robes; when asked to remove them, they revealed police uniforms underneath.
The actual trial featured so many surreal moments that the film couldn't even come close to including all of them. Instead, the movie is less of a historical document than a theatrical reinterpretation of an era. (Allen Ginsberg is mentioned briefly, but the fact that he delivered a long, obscene testimony full of poetry and chants during the actual trial is conveniently left out, as are other testimonies by the likes of Phil Ochs; even so, the movie does a good job of paying tribute to the hippies).
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 Real Life Characters and Ending Explained! www.youtube.com
Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne Shine
This tension—between performance and activism—carries on throughout the film. Sacha Baron Cohen's Abbie Hoffman balances intelligence and revolutionary spirit with comedic dryness, whereas Eddie Redmayne's character, Tom Hayden, frames himself as Abbie's opposite, a student dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam and obsessed with respectability during the trial and eventually making change by winning elections.
But it quickly becomes clear that Tom is no poised angel, and his respectability isn't always in alignment with his actions. This isn't the first time Redmayne has played a student revolutionary (remember Marius), but here his performance is rougher and more unhinged; ultimately, he does a good job of playing the genuine radical at odds with his desire to succeed inside the system.
And then there's Bobby Seale, a Black Panther who was falsely accused of killing a police officer at the time of trial. At one point, Seale turns to Hayden and says that his whole revolution act might be rooted in rebellion against his father, but he has to understand how "that's a little different from a rope on a tree." It's a time-stopping moment that draws the film out of its own echo chamber and shocks it into a space of uncanny relevance.
At one point, after confronting the judge and calling him a fascist and racist, Seale is bound and gagged in court—a spectacle that eventually results in his being released from the trial (turning the eight into seven). The scene shocks the jury and courtroom, sharpening their perspective and changing the mood of the trial.
At the end of the movie, Hayden stands and reads out a list of 4,725 names of soldiers lost in Vietnam—a list that his friend had been keeping since the beginning of the film, so they could remember what they're all fighting for. Perspective is what the organizers all want to instill, and perhaps it's what the film aims to achieve as well, though both often lose it in the theatricality of it all.
Lessons from 1968 to 2020: The "Radical Left" and Police Violence
One of the most striking things about the film is the way it resonates with the politics of today's America. In 1968, a war was killing thousands, young people were being forcibly drafted, Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot, and protestors sparred with cops and the military in the streets. Life was volatile, it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and revolution felt inevitable. 50 years later, so much and yet so little seems to have changed.
We may no longer have the draft, but America is deeply fractured. The police continue to incite violence in the street as protestors eat tear gas nightly while being blamed for rioting and looting. Racial justice issues continue to divide America, as do corrupt and biased judges (Hoffman's horrifying performance is oddly reminiscent of Amy Coney Barrett's, if only in its surreality and hypocrisy).
At the heart of the film is the so-called "radical left"—a faction that, in fact, doesn't really exist, but that continues to terrify centrists and the right. Today's so-called left lacks anything as tangible as Vietnam to unify it; but then again, the left has always been a tangle of organizations and contradictions. Today, these organizations run the gamut from Indivisible chapters whose sole objective is to oust Trump to full-on police abolitionists.
Some things have changed. There are more female leaders. Extinction Rebellion may be the closest thing we have left to the hippie movement. Climate change, which was not on anyone's radar in 1968, looms over everything. Economic inequality is worse than ever.
Other things have stayed the same. Police have continued acting as arms of the state and legally killing people, and in response, Black Lives Matter briefly managed to unify and rally the left. Now, in the fallout of a wild summer, debates continue over the merits of nonviolence while riot police continue to spew tear gas. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have died of COVID-19.
The current Democratic candidate is a centrist who leftists are throwing themselves behind because they have no choice. Clearly, the revolutions of the 1960s failed to generate the new and radical future that its orchestrators dreamed of.
The Legacy of the Chicago Seven in 2020
At one point, the seven men on trial gather together in a room and start arguing about whether victory is political or cultural, and Abbie and Tom nearly get in a fistfight. They then look at each other and Abbie sarcastically marvels at the fact that the seven of them, who can't even be in a room without trying to punch each other, couldn't stop a war.
A year after the trial, Tom Wicker wrote in The New York Times that the Chicago Seven trial "tore the rubber masks of affluence and power and security off American society and gave the nation a new view of itself — challenged and unsure, contorted and afraid, in contention for its own soul."
Today, that mask of security has been burned like bras in a Woodstock bonfire, and the ugly face of American power structures are fully visible (at least to anyone who hasn't always been aware of them). As Joe Biden takes up arms to "fight for the soul of America," it's clear that a change is gonna come—in fact, change has been coming. But what that change will look like may depend on whether the left is able to get itself together.
Today's left may have the best interests of people at heart, and progressives may truly want to stop poverty and climate change and racial violence. But unless the left somehow unifies and overcomes its internal violence and divisiveness, as the movie (and history) seem to imply, it will continue to fracture.