‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’: The whole world is still watching
Still via Netflix. Fair use

There are many reasons to see Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film The Trial of the Chicago 7. Writer-director Sorkin has gifted us with a well-written, often well-acted lesson in history and political philosophy. Although the focus is on ideas, heartfelt emotions, and wry humor leaven Sorkin’s filmic advertisement for organizing for social change.

Chicago 7 takes us from the planning stages of demonstrations to be held at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention through convention action, culminating in the trial itself.

Sorkin’s character sketches of the principals have the feel of theater pieces. We are introduced to each of the eight original defendants, their legal defense team, and the state agents pursuing them, both in the streets and in the courtroom. The cameo character development does some injustice as John Carroll Lynch comes off as a much more priggish Dave Dellinger than he was in real life, and the fine actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, the eighth defendant, is more shackled by the script than he was by the courtroom chains.

The main conflict the film portrays is not essentially between the autocratic powers of a repressive state and the demonstrators. The film assumes, and history has shown, the correctness of the demonstrators. There was no conspiracy among those accused. More important, their cause was just and their exercise of freedom was largely within the scope of established law. When confronted by largely peaceful demonstrators, the Chicago police repeatedly rioted and used excessive force. The grossly unfair conduct of the court was roundly condemned and the convictions were ultimately overturned.

The legal arm of the police state is skewered by Sorkin. Frank Langella, as Judge Julius Hoffman, gives an over-the-top performance of painful accuracy. He was an easy, ample target for the consistent brilliance of defense attorney William Kunstler, played with unerring knowingness and stage-defined timing by Mark Rylance.

A much more telling conflict is that among those who sought to end the war and champion social justice. Defendant Bobby Seale was bound, gagged, and separated from the others not only because he spoke out the loudest, but because he spoke a more frightening truth. His stand as head of the Black Panther Party offered the greatest challenge to the state. Certainly, Sorkin could have dealt in greater depth with what Seale symbolized, but fortunately, we have Fred Hampton’s all too brief life (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to illustrate this. Those who recall this era may have forgotten that the police assassination of the 21-year-old Chicago leader of the BPP took place on December 4, 1969, as the Chicago 7 trial was in progress.

The film’s central sub-conflict is between Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, an SDS leader, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Yippie, Abbie Hoffman. As Sorkin’s moral icon, Redmayne’s well-scrubbed respectability falls short of the righteous passion of Academy Award-nominated Baron Cohen’s Hoffman. Hoffman’s embodiment of cultural revolution would make Antonio Gramsci proud.

In the post-trial world, Hayden’s meliorist pragmatism slid far too easily into the bourgeois Democratic electoral politics of the California legislature. Hayden served seven terms as State Assemblyman and State Senator (1982–2000), befriending and endorsing Hillary Clinton, rather than Bernie Sanders.

Hoffman continued more direct activism against the CIA, the excesses of the state, and corporate environmental degradation. He committed suicide in 1989 at age 52. His words are worth heeding now as they were in the trial and film:

“Now a lot of people decry division. There’s always been and always will be division in this country. It isn’t about trying to resolve differences that cannot be resolved under our form of government and economy. It’s about making a decision about which side of this division you are going to stand and what you are going to do about it.”

The important supporting role of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who just died on April 9 at the age of 93, is handled to a T by Michael Keaton.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is live streaming on Netflix and can also be viewed on the big screen in some of the newly opened theaters.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.