16 October 2020 20:39
Aaron Sorkin found a great button—albeit a fictitious one—with which to end The Trial of the Chicago 7, his invigorating courtroom drama, which premiered on Netflix Friday. And while Sorkin does wind down his film by deploying some "today we call them computers"-esque epilogue cards, they only scratch the surface of what happened next to the Chicago Seven, Bobby Seale, and the rest of this historical moment's colorful characters. When the 1960s ended, Abbie Hoffman (played in the film by Sacha Baron Cohen) was a star—possibly the star—of, as he put it in his testimony, the "Woodstock Nation." (For the curious: here is a 20-minute art film of him making gefilte fish.) But Hoffman was unable to ride that wave of popularity for too much longer. Hoffman eventually turned himself in in 1980, served a year in jail and on work release, then got back together with his old chum Jerry Rubin—albeit in an unexpected way. Hoffman would die of an overdose in April of 1989, an apparent suicide—and though fellow Chicago Seven defendant David Dellinger was suspicious of the ruling, the coroner's report was conclusive.
After the trial, Rubin continued his work as an anti-war leader, protesting the 1972 presidential conventions. After the Chicago Seven trial, Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, was acquitted of the murder of a party member suspected of being a police informant. One of the few central figures in the film still alive today, Seale continues to write and speak about social justice and the Black Panthers. Redmayne's former Students for a Democratic Society president, Tom Hayden, fulfilled the prediction Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) made of him. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Picture: RUBA/BACKGRID) Aaron Sorkin's highly anticipated new release, The Trial of the Chicago 7, has landed on Netflix.
His recent foray into the past for film fodder was with The Trial of the Chicago 7, released in select cinemas and to Netflix on October 16. Though it's odd to put a spoiler warning on a film that follows a true story from 50 years ago, we'll say it now — if you haven't watched The Trial of the Chicago 7, know little about the historical event and want to go into the film as such, there are spoilers from here on out. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies' co-founder, along with Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, the Yippies' other co-founder. John Carroll Lynch played David Dellinger, along with Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner and Daniel Flaherty as John Froines, two other anti-war activists. L to R: Leonard Weinglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, David Dellinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, William Kunstler David Fenton Getty Images As a result, attorney general Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton) was replaced by John Mitchell (John Doman) who decided to indict the aforementioned seven protestors (Tom, Rennie, Abbie, Jerry, David, Weiner and Faherty) and Black Panther president Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II).
• That David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale individually crossed state lines to incite a riot. Mitchell chose prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tom Foran (JC MacKenzie) to try the case, and the judge was Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). As explained in the film, his lawyer was undergoing surgery and the judge refused to postpone the trial, leading to a huge violation of Seale's constitutional rights. As accurately and viscerally portrayed in the film, Hoffman went so far as to have Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom for speaking out about his right for representation. Eventually, perhaps to avoid further accusations of racism, Hoffman called a mistrial in Seale's case, and the defendants were now seven. The remaining five (Tom, Rennie, Abbie, Jerry, and David) were found guilty of the incitement-to-riot charge. The lingering feeling that The Trial of the Chicago 7 leaves us with is a strange sense that we're living through these very same events right now: police are acting with impunity against Black people to violent, fatal ends and the justice system (particularly in America) seems to be anything but. Though the movie ends on an Oscar-bait note of hope (a major disappointment in an otherwise unflinching film), Sorkin hewed fairly close to the actual events of the trial and the riots, and we wholeheartedly recommend watching it. We can ask this question of Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 and find several obvious answers. He picked it up again in 2018 with a presidential election in the middle distance, and it's easy to understand why: The film is a lightly fictionalized courtroom drama based on the six-month trial of seven men accused of conspiring to cross state lines and incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Does The Trial of the Chicago 7 work as a film? By those markers, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is identifiably Sorkin's work, sometimes to its detriment, particularly as the movie rounds third base and heads for home plate. The Chicago 7, played in the movie by a uniformly outstanding cast, were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). The federal government charged the men with conspiracy and crossing state lines with intent to start a riot, and the trial began in September 1968 under Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). An eighth man, Bobby Seale (a stunning Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also in Chicago to speak at a demonstration. Hoffman and Rubin are the disruptive hippies; Dellinger the peaceful grownup; Hayden the principled statesman; Davis the young radical; and Froines and Weiner are just happy to find themselves in such august company. The historical record suggests Schultz was more of a hard-driving idealogue than the even-handed attorney we meet in The Trial of the Chicago 7, who gets to play the part of, if not a hero, at least a Pretty Good Guy by the end. Softening Schulz is one of a number of tweaks to the facts that Sorkin makes for the film, something he has done plenty of times in the past; The Social Network, which might be his best script, plays very fast and loose with characters and events alike. Not because anyone thinks The Trial of the Chicago 7 should have been a documentary — there have already been several about the same sequence of events, and you can stream them if you like — but because Sorkin takes those liberties to fit this tale to the contours of the classic Hollywood courtroom drama. I was with the film right till the end, when it makes this heel turn, which I think is ineffective — or, at least, could have been more effective handled another way, one that would probably have involved hewing more closely to the facts. Sorkin doesn't change the outcome of the trial, but the way he moves pieces of history around is clearly bent toward turning The Trial of the Chicago 7 into a Hollywood tale of underdog courtroom triumph. (I don't want to spoil the movie's beats, but I will say that Sorkin's placement of events near its conclusion, combined with the requisite swelling triumphal music, shifts the tone of The Trial of the Chicago 7 into the kind of fairy tale that I'd hoped the movie would avoid.) But the way he ends the film gives me the sense that Sorkin's answer to the "why now?" question would be simple: Because very little has changed. Honoring them is an act of revolution — and The Trial of the Chicago 7 argues that the fight to keep them from being lost in the first place has been going on a long, long time. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.