The anti-war riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago may have been 52 years ago, but they still resonate with the recent violence in America’s streets to protest police brutality.
“The whole world’s watching” is a chant that resonates loud and clear across those decades, and while one event was sparked by the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers killed during the Vietnam War, the other carries its legacy of sorts as the Black Lives Movement stands up for justice in the face of extralegal killing by police right here in America.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin, whose TV series “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” became virtual primers for how Washington politics and major TV media are run, takes a crack at making history relevant to today and does a pretty fine job of it.
His film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” now streaming on Netflix, is both an example of how political theater was played out over months in a Chicago courtroom and what the American system of jurisprudence was like at the time as described by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the movie. When questioned about whether he has contempt for the government, Hoffman says “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.”
As you might expect for a film featuring a lot of major stars by the go-to director for all things clear, concise, to the point and decidedly liberal about our institutions of government and culture, this film’s exactitude regarding the trial certainly leans toward the high points and dramatic license. But, if you watch the film from the standpoint of having followed the trial either as someone who was alive then or as a student of politics, it’s easy to see the choices Sorkin made to bring this story to life at this particular moment in time.
Nicely impactful, for instance, was how you might view the way the trial began taking shape just as the the presidential portraits are being switched from Lyndon Johnson to Richard M. Nixon in 1968. That’s when U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) escorts a young lawyer from his office, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to the office of Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) for his first big assignment: The prosecution of the Chicago 7 for federal crimes related to the Rap Brown Law.
The rarely-invoked law was supposed to punish those who crossed state lines with the intent to cause a riot. But, even Schultz explains the law is flimsy because it was created to silence Black activists. Besides, he tells Mitchell — who would eventually encounter his own dark journey with the law under Nixon — his predecessor Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) had conducted an investigation of the riot and found that Chicago police caused it, not the activists. Mitchell, under Nixon’s orders, believes that is irrelevant because Clark is no longer the A.G. He is now, so the men identified in a series of indictments will stand trial.
They are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the Students for a Democratic Society, Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Yippies, conscientious objector and nonviolent protester David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and political professors John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins).
During the early part of the trial, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was included despite only being in Chicago for four hours during the convention and having no legal representation and who says he was put there to scare the jury, who was mostly White. His lawyer was unable to attend due to a medical issue. It was Seale who jurors and attendees most remember after Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) repeatedly cited him for contempt and had him yanked from the courtroom, beaten, and then returned in restraints with a bloody bandage over his mouth. In reality, this happened over several days.
Judge Hoffman is a character all his own in this film. Obviously seething with hatred for the men on trial, he takes every opportunity to not only trample over their rights but to denigrate their very presence. Another standout is famed civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) who works his hardest to stand as a buffer between the antics of his unruly clients and this clearly unfit judge, that is until he himself begins racking up contempt citations for simply saying what needs to be said.
One of the important takeaways from the film is that it highlights the fact that the 1960s protests weren’t all anti-war. They were also about civil rights, women’s rights, LGTBQ rights (although at the time they were simply called gay rights), Native American rights and simple equality. As stated in the movie, “nothing is more dangerous than a crowd of people who are moving.” Whether through the streets to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, the spirit of civil unrest will always meet the baton, tear gas and intractable faces of people who believe they are in charge and therefore unquestionable.
The whole world’s watching, indeed.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
Taos News grade: A.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres in Taos and the Taos Community Auditorium remain closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Until they reopen, we will focus on movies available online.