I confess that I was disheartened when I first heard that Aaron Sorkin, best known as the creator of the TV show The West Wing, was writing and directing a film about the trial of the Chicago Seven. Although much celebrated not just for The West Wing but for his scripts for films like A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010), Sorkin struck me as having the exact wrong sensibility for telling the story of radicals fighting the legal system. Spanning the years 1969 and 1970, the Chicago Seven trial involved the federal government trying to convict seven anti-war radicals (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner) along with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (whose case was eventually treated separately). All stood accused of fomenting riots during the 1968 Democratic convention. The trial was extremely controversial and polarizing, with many shocking moments, most notoriously when Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale shackled and gagged after the defendant repeatedly tried to represent himself in court.
I thought Sorkin was the wrong writer for the job because the Chicago Seven trial is about the deep divisions in American politics, while Sorkin himself has always been celebrator of consensus and civility. The West Wing was a fantasy of bipartisan reconciliation, featuring a liberal president named Josiah Bartlet who found ways of winning over conservative opponents.
As Luke Savage noted in Current Affairs, in The West Wing “Republicans come in two types: slack-jawed caricatures, and people whose high-mindedness and mutual enthusiasm for Putting Differences Aside make them the Bartlet Administration’s natural allies or friends regardless of whatever conflicts of values they may ostensibly have.” In one episode, the Democratic president gets a Republican-dominated Senate to agree to a liberal Supreme Court justice by offering a deal: He guarantees that the next Supreme Court nomination (expected to open up soon because one justice is elderly) will go to a conservative. The limits of Sorkin’s political imagination can be seen in the difference between this imaginary Washington of mutually beneficial cooperation and the way the real GOP has ruthlessly gamed the system to get what will soon be a 6-3 Republican court.
How could someone as committed to the fantasy of American national unity possibly do justice to a story of radicals like Seale and Hoffman who questioned the very validity of the political system?
My misgivings were misplaced—at least in part. Sorkin’s new movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently streaming on Netflix, is in fact very entertaining and shows a greater complexity than his earlier work. The film does a credible job of tracing the trajectory of the trial and highlights the ideological differences between the defendants, with Hoffman (charismatically performed by Sasha Baron Cohen) standing as the leading advocate of in-your-face confrontation while Tom Hayden (played as inward-looking and cerebral by Eddie Redmayne) serves as the voice of trying to work within the rules of system. Surprisingly, Hoffman comes across as the more appealing of the two: He’s warm and has a sharp understanding that a political trial demands revolutionary theater. The film’s Hayden, who has politics that are closer to Sorkin’s own, seems cold and calculating, although he is also the only character who has a narrative arc. Through the course of the movie, he comes to appreciate Hoffman’s more radical politics.
But Sorkin is able to achieve this positive view of the New Left only by sanitizing and romanticizing the historical record. Sorkin takes many liberties with the facts, most of which are designed to make both the New Left and its conservative opponents more palatable to contemporary liberal viewers.
Sorkin completely erases the anti-imperialist dimension of the New Left. Throughout the movie, with the exception of one line, the characters talk as if the only problem with the war was that American soldiers were being killed, not that they were killing the Vietnamese. The exception is Tom Hayden during a mock cross-examination saying he didn’t enlist in the army because “I did not volunteer to kill Vietnamese people.” But the protesters are shown as being obsessed with American war dead, reading out the names of the fallen in the climactic court scene. There’s no sense in the movie that the war was being protested as an imperialist crime.
Bobby Seale’s story is softened and put off to the margins. He’s shown as being gagged only once, when he was gagged for three days. After his case is declared a mistrial, Seale disappears from the movie.
One strange and telling invention is that David Dellinger is shown hitting a federal marshal. The real Dellinger was a committed pacifist who would never do such a thing. But in creating a two-fisted Dellinger, Sorkin in effect undermines Dellinger’s radicalism, turning an anti-violence activist into much more conventional American hero, someone who punches back when bullied.
In real life, Abbie Hoffman engaged in a relentless baiting of his namesake, Judge Julius Hoffman, suggesting the jurist was an assimilationist sellout. He kept hurling Yiddish insults at the judge, calling him a “Shande fur de Goyim.” That literally means a “disgrace for the Gentiles,” but the defendant added a further insult by offering his own translation and saying the phrase meant “front man for the WASP power elite.” The intense inter-Jewish animosity between the two Hoffmans runs through the court records but is barely detectable in the film.
There is an invented scene where Jerry Rubin saves a protester from being raped by frat boys. Rubin also has a romance with an invented female undercover cop, who is shown to have some sympathy for the anti-war protesters, to the extent of advising them on how to avoid a violent clash with the police.
This parallels the invented emotional complexity given to Richard Schultz, the federal prosecutor. Schultz is shown to be tormented by the case, knowing that the government is being unjust. The real Schultz was a hard-liner who was fully committed to jailing the Chicago Seven and Seale.
A dramatization will inevitably swerve from the historical record. But all of these transformations work in the same direction. They all turn the story into another fable of reconciliation, a story of how Americans come together despite differences. Abbie Hoffman, in real life an anarchist and mischief maker, is even shown endorsing electoral politics.
As Ester Zuckerman notes in Thrillist, the final scene is the culmination of Sorkin’s putting his own spin on events:
Sorkin’s reworking of the last moments will inevitably [be] the movie’s most-debated change to the public record. At the sentencing in the film, Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, uses his allotted time to speak to read off the names of the U.S. soldiers who had died in Vietnam since the trial began. As he reads, the music starts to swell and the defendants stand up in memory. They are soon joined by the rest of the courtroom, despite the protests of Hoffman. In a particularly saccharine touch, even the prosecution Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stands. It’s a cinematic finale that doesn’t touch on the anger of the actual incident. According to the transcript of the trial—which is being republished in conjunction with the movie—this, perhaps obviously, never happened.
It’s worth quoting the actual words some of the defendants said at the trial. Dellinger told the court, “Tactics will change, people will err, people will die in the streets and die in prison, but I do not believe that this movement can be denied because, however falsely applied, the American ideal was from the beginning, when it excluded Black people and Indians and people without property, nonetheless there was a dream of justice and equality and freedom, and brotherhood, and I think that dream is much closer to fulfillment today than it has been at any time in the history of this country.”
Hayden said, “I have no doubt that if we had a jury of our peers, we would have walked out of this place, or we would have had an absolutely hung jury because younger people in the country today know what principles, and know what bullshit is, and know how to stand up and are not in the least afraid of expressing their convictions in the face of the state, in the face of the troops, in the face of police.”
Both of these statements contain some expression of faith in America and its people, but they are also far more radical than anything the characters say in the movie. The ultimate message of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that Americans can always come together on behalf of noble causes like honoring the troops. This is a message that appeals to many people today. But it’s at radical variance with what happened in Chicago in 1968 and subsequently.