I told one of my daughters that I was going to write a review of this film after seeing it this past weekend and would compare my memory of what happened to the film. She emailed me that Vanity Fair had beaten me to that approach. In fact, Jordan Hoffman’s article in the 16 October issue, “The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Wildest Things the Movie Left Out” is different. I do not want to write a review about what was left out as much as about what was in the movie that seemed to be at odds with my memory. Hence, the Alert.
Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed The Trial of the Chicago 7 as well as Moneyball and a host of other films such as the 2010 film about the initiation of Facebook, The Social Network.In The Trial, he made a film about one of the momentous moments of my life, the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the long trial that lasted from April of 1969 to February of 1970, which both enraged me and made me cry. Sorkin turned it into a comedy, a tragic-comedy, but a comedy nevertheless. An all-too-earnest Tom Hayden, the head of The Students for Democratic Action (SDS) and author of the infamous Port Huron Statement, became the straight man for Abbie Hoffman’s stand-up comedy and satirical riffs.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abby as only Cohen could, as a wiseacre rather than a brilliant and insightful clown and master of the sight gag. He did offer one example of the latter. He and Rubin wore judicial robes into court. The judge ordered them to take the robes off. They did. Underneath, in the film, they reveal police badges pinned to their chests. In history, I believe they wore yellow stars. If this was the case, I do not know why Sorkin made the switch except to underplay the Jewish role in the protests and to provide a greater link with the present.
In reality, Abbie Hoffman was known as the co-founder of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, but he was also one of the progenitors of identity politics in his claim that we are constructed by the media we watch and the myths embedded in that media. At the other end of the spectrum was Rennie Davis, played by Alex Sharp, as Hayden’s owl-eyed pedantic sidekick whose notebook becomes the star of the day at the end of the trial. Did something like that happened halfway through the actual trial? I don not recall. However, putting it at the end was a great emotional way to end the movie.
I remember Rennie Davis, not as a nerd, but as a brilliant strategist and tactician who played a far more important role in writing the Port Huron Statement with Tom and in developing the practices of the American New Left. He was assigned a peripheral role in the film.
Cohen has his own sidekick, another Yippie who became a Yuppie. Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong, comes across as a naïve idealist and romantic rather than as Abbie Hoffman’s cynical but very realistic clever buddy. I understood that Strong had really immersed himself in studying the period and the character of Jerry Rubin so I cannot guarantee that my memory is correct.
The movie, while drawing on the actual transcript of the trial and the events that took place, is not a historical documentary. Certainly the horror of the American Vietnam War and the draft to enlist sufficient soldiers as fodder for that fruitless battle in Indochina provide the background, but until the very end, the Vietnam War slips well into the backroom in favour of courtroom antics that turns an institution, supposedly the repository of justice, into a theatre stage as Richard Nixon, as the hidden puppet master for a malicious prosecution, pursues revenge against dissidents. Further, we know it could not be a representation of the actual trial, which was an exercise in chaos as well as injustice, while the movie reconstructs the courtroom battle as much more of a polished and orderly affair, though with volcanic eruptions paced throughout.
The central event in Chicago was the organized attack by Mayor Daley’s “police” against the counter-cultural hippies and pro-democratic protesters trying to get their message to the attendees at the Chicago 1968 Democratic convention and the wider American public. The past is used to speak to the present – the conflicts in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd (“I can’t breathe”), the seemingly endless confrontations in Portland, Oregon, Jacob Blake’s killing in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Breonnna Taylor’s “execution” in Louisville, Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery’s killing by police in Brunswick, Georgia, Rayshard Brook’s death in Atlanta, Georgia at the hands of police, Dijon Kizzee’s murder in Los Angeles, and a myriad of confrontations with “officers of the law” across America.
These did not start in 1968. Chicago 68 was an echo fifty years after the Red Summer of Chicago 1919. Nor will they end in 2020. Nevertheless, “the times they are a changin’.” For 38 were killed in the 1919 riots. Over 500 were injured. The police turned their backs and arrested Blacks for defending themselves from their white assailants. 1968 was mainly a white affair. Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, was in Chicago at most for two days during the confrontation. And his visit had nothing to do with the Yippie celebrations in the park or the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) protesters. In 2020, the demonstrators have been black and white and came from all age groups, not just youth.
However, in 1968, the property destruction of white areas, such as the Gold Coast Historic District where Michigan Avenue, the key street where the confrontations took place, terminates, had been enormous. That was largely the responsibility of the Weathermen, a radical breakaway from SDS. I never learned why Mark Rudd and John Jacobs, the founders, were never charged. For these Columbia University radicals were the real instigators of the destruction. Further, in contrast to the destruction in Chicago on rich white consumer shopping, the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1920 totally destroyed the black parts of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The perpetrators were primarily white mobs. Following the Rodney King killing by police, the 1992 Los Angeles Watts riots were a response to the acquittal of the four cops. 60 died.
In comparison, in spite of the extensive media coverage of the Chicago police brutality, their use of tear gas and clubs, relatively, it was a tame affair. This was not a credit to the police and Mayor Daley, whom Senator Abraham Ribicoff rebuked for using police as Nazi thugs, but because the protesters had been well-trained in using non-violence, even though a great deal of property destruction took place on the sides – but not by followers of the main people accused. Further, Daley had mustered 12,000 police, 2,500 National Guardsmen and 1,000 intelligence officers borrowed from the FBI and other agencies. A military corps was on standby. And there were only an estimated 5,000 protesters and counter-cultural exhibitionists. In contrast, in this past year, 14,000 people were arrested. Millions protested. Further, no mayor today would dare do what Daley did; he gave his officers orders to shoot to maim. On the other hand, in the case of the Chicago 1968 riots, 8 cops were indicted. I do not know whether they were convicted
To-day, because protesters are much better behaved, and so are most police forces, over 90% of protests have been without incident. Nevertheless, the movie speaks to the present, a present characterized by deep divisions between the democratic left and the officious and indifferent right. But in 1968, the schisms within the left were as deep or even deeper than the divide between the defenders of the Vietnam War and its critics. Only then, the presidency was occupied by a truly malevolent figure, while in the present, the occupant in that high office is an incompetent and ignorant clown full to the eyebrows with mendacity on public display everywhere. Nixon’s lies were covered up in a pretense of honesty. Donald Trump could not display honesty even if one could find a trace of it in his anatomy.
The racism and prejudice are, however, underplayed as a sideshow to the main drama, the confrontation of peace protesters with police with billie clubs, with tear gas and a total indifference to the rights of peaceful protest. The system is corrupt and the blindfold on Lady Justice comes to represent deliberate blindness rather than very carefully preserved impartiality. The period makes today’s events look like a comedy festival in which keystone conspirators threaten to kidnap the Governor of Michigan and even assassinate her. Back then, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And the Yippies were the keystone anti-cops.
Sorokin succeeds in part because of the writing, in part because of the direction and mostly because he was able to attract a terrific cast. However, in the end he succeeds so well because he constructs a courtroom drama that both evokes sympathy for a bunch of characters, many of whom are personally unattractive, as collectively they subvert formal but totally inauthentic authority, each in his own way.
Other than the corrupt office of the Attorney General, which is represented by a sincere and seemingly honourable prosecuting attorney, Richard Schultz, and his silent and dishonourable boss, the central source of that inauthentic authority is a caricature, Judge Julius Hoffman, played brilliantly by Frank Langella. There is not the slightest attempt to show that he represents the rule of law as he is characterized as using his perch to bully the defendants and their attorneys. Shades of today’s Trumpian days, he is an enforcer rather than a judge, a stand-in for the Nixon administration and John Mitchell as the Attorney General playing William Barr, determined to use the Chicago 7 as exemplars in his new law and order regime.
Except for the most enraged, the most frustrated and, in the end, the most intemperate of those on trial, Bobby Seale, when the rule of law finally peaks its forehead above the theatre boards, reveals himself as the one most victimized. When he is chained up and gagged, as well as beat up by the courtroom bullies there to enforce decorum, the thin, wispy prosecuting attorney who represents the state, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Schultz, in contrast to his appeasing boss, Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie), does have his own humanity and backbone as much as he disagrees with and condemns the actions of the leaders of the protest. He moves for a mistrial in the case of Bobby Seale to the enormous consternation of the comic book judge and the trial becomes that of the Chicago 7.
I did not recall Ramsey Clark (played by Michael Keaton), who was the U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, taking the stand at the end of the trial and declaring that his department’s investigation of the protesters found no evidence of either a conspiracy or intent to engage in violence. And the testimony was explosive. But, of course, under the direction of Judge Julius Hoffman, the jury never heard it.
I realized that the drama did not work because it simulated events at the time, though a great many of those events were included. Nor did it work because Aaron Sorkin tried to make the characters resemble the historical figures who were on trial in 1968. They are not simulacrums, but fictional creations in their own right. They are his characters, though they bear a resemblance to actual history, but not an exact one to the historical figures.
Bobby Seale, head of the Black Panthers and played by Yaha Abdul Mateen, never had legal representation. He did have an adviser, Fred Hampton, I believe a co-founder of the Black Panthers. He is played by Kelvin Harrison. Fred was neither a lawyer nor on trial, He was assassinated by the police during the trial. He was the one who insisted that the Black Panthers keep their distance from the anarchistic and opportunistic so-called radical whites. Together, Bobby and Fred demonstrated the roots of Black Lives Matter as each complements the other. But I do not recall knowing Bobby Seale, though, of course, I knew of him.
I did not know William Kunstler either, but I did have a powerful memory of him and it did not correspond at all to the character of the lead defence attorney in the film. William Kunstler, as I recall, was a flamboyant and thoroughly unconventional courtroom lawyer; for me, in the film he was made over into a very serious, very learned, very compelling, very clever and extremely frustrated man of the law. In real life, he was a very serious man on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. He co-founded the Law Center for Constitutional Rights. But he was a big man. He had been a major in the army during WWII. He was a brawler. He was a rumpled mess, but a very colourful character. He was also a poet. As interesting as the character was in the movie. I barely remembered him as the guy I recalled. I heard that Jeffrey Sweet’s play, kunstler, does a far better job of depicting the real historical personality.
I knew David Dellinger from his writings in Liberation for I was a pacifist in the late fifties and early sixties, but I had never met him, though I had been at a conference with A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin and he must have been there. I would have liked to have met him for he was a pacifist, an anarchist and an experimenter with intentional communities. He also hated bureaucracies. He was, if I recall, a down-to-earth kind of guy whom I did not recognize as the suited pacifist and demonstrator in the movie. I had liked him even though I never met him because he seemed decent, reasonable, affable and never took himself too seriously. If my memory is better than the film, where he comes across as a stuffed shirt misfit in the yippie and student protest movement of the sixties, this was perhaps the greatest misrepresentation in the film. I remember that when he became enamoured with Fidel Castro, he fell totally out of favour with me so that by 1968, I had lost respect for him. But that said more about me than him.
The only person depicted in the film that I ever met was Tom Hayden, though I had seen both Rubin and Hoffman at a demonstration. Eddie Redmayne played Tom as a very serious small “l” liberal who laughed too little and scolded too much. He played the role of the superego of the group and apparently the most intellectual, though he was wise enough in the film to understand that Hoffman was much smarter than he ever thought. I remember him as very tolerant and proud of the wide variety of personalities and positions in the New Left and never imagined him as a hectoring person. Further, he was much more playful. I think that this was the way he should have been portrayed when he let the air out of the tire of the police car.
I remember one thing about the events that stood out and which Sorkin tried to capture in Abbie Hoffman’s humour. When Judge Julius Hoffman tried to make clear that he was totally unrelated to the plaintiff, Abbie Hoffman cracked, “Dad, why hast thou forsaken me.” (The movie may have had a slightly different version, but that is the one I recall.) Later in the movie, Hoffman quotes the Gospel according to Matthew; I have no memory of that. What I recall is that he told a lot of Yiddish jokes, I believed at the time, to embarrass the judge who tried so hard to resemble a WASP. I wish I would and could have remembered more of Hoffman’s Yiddish wit.
In mid-film, when Abie Hoffman takes the stand, the judge asks him to state his name. “Abbie.” “State your last name.” “My grandfather’s name was Shaboysnakoff, but he was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism, so he was assigned a name that would sound like yours.” Later in the film, Hoffman cracks, “”You are a shande für de Goyim.” (You are a disgrace to gentiles.) Hoffman then shoved the knife in. He added, “You would have served Hitler better.”
The Jewish element was ever present in real life in the whole protest movement, but only glanced at in the film. Hoffman, Rubin and Lee Weiner, 3 of the 8, were Jewish. So was the legal cohort on all Sides – Judge Hoffman, Richard Schultz, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass (Kunstler’s associate played by Ben Shenkman). And Mark Rudd and John Jacobs, the Columbian University radicals from the Weathermen, who were not in the film, were both Jewish. Jacobs would have been a great addition to the film given his arrogant pugnaciousness and sneering personality. It would also have accounted for the property damage in a clearer way.
I cannot even remember many of the other representations of the trial that I have seen over the years. One was a documentary. Another was a docudrama. One was a satire. And, of course, there is Woody Allen’s Bananas which I have seen twice on TV recently. I believe there may have been others. But in spite of the differences with my memory, Sorkin’s film clearly made the strongest impression on me by far.
Drop me your email, and I’ll send you the script of KUNSTLER.