Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (Netflix) takes on one of the most notorious trials in history. It is roughly based on actual events, inviting exploration of the actual history of what was arguably a political trial, and focuses on telling a story that is in many ways a reflection of our own turbulent times. It’s smart, it’s provocative, and it should make you angry.
In history, the Chicago Seven were seven leaders of various antiwar groups who called on them to come to Chicago during the Democratic Convention in 1968 to protest and demand an end to the war in Vietnam. (Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, was the eighth, though he was eventually removed from the trial.) What followed in Chicago was brutal suppression of the protestors and violent retaliation in what ended up being called a “police riot,” in which hundreds of protestors and officers were injured.
The outgoing Johnson Administration decided the riots in Chicago were largely the result of mishandling by police. The incoming Nixon Administration, however, decided to make an example of and attack the antiwar movement, citing a new law against crossing state lines to incite violence. The protest leaders were arrested and charged.
What followed was not so much a courtroom drama as a circus, as the defendants, which included the likes of Abbie Hoffman (perfectly played in the film by Sascha Cohen) and Jerry Rubin, treated it as a joke, while the judge, Julius Hoffman (perfectly played by the great Frank Langella) was openly hostile to the defense, making the whole thing feel rigged. The defendants were convicted and sentenced both for inciting riots and numerous counts of contempt, all of which was overturned by the appeals court.
Much of what made it into the film is fictional, though providing a poignant reflection of our times, similar to the way Netflix’s WACO wasn’t accurate but still packed a hell of a punch as a story. The film focuses on issues of racism, social injustice, police overreach and brutality, and political suppression, declaring the trial a political trial in which the defendants were facing jail time for having “wrong” ideas. Among the defendants, we hear plenty of debate about respectability politics, what kinds of political protest and action work and what doesn’t, and whether mass movements are effective if they don’t work within the system–none of it surprising from the guy who wrote THE WEST WING and disparaged the Occupy Wall Street movement, though his script is surprisingly kind to Hoffman, who was far more wacky and offensive in the real courtroom than in the fictional one.
Overall, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is great–smart, provocative, powerful, and easy to relate to.